Tuesday 24 October 2017

Aisake reaching vintage heights for Cork

Colm Keys

Colm Keys

The mantra for the Cork players all week was to 'expect the unexpected'. It incorporated the capacity for anything to happen, a delay to the throw-in time included.

But had they such a resurgence in Aisake O hAilpin in mind when they repeated that mantra to themselves over and over again? Did they expect that particular tale of the unexpected?

Cork can point to many things that have catapulted them back to the brink of a Munster final for the first time in four years, but it is this impressive rise from the ashes of ridicule that will give them as much private satisfaction this week as the collective impact of their achievement.

Aisake had essentially been washed up after the league final, too cumbersome to be part of any overall plan. The time required was not on their hands so when his name figured on the team sheet on Thursday night it led to no small amount of derision on Leeside and beyond.

But the faith Denis Walsh has shown has not been blind and the Saturday morning one-on-one sessions in Carrigtwohill have reaped a significant dividend.


Cork are serious players again in the game of hurling, a status that one decent league campaign couldn't have afforded them.

They have earned it with a style of play that certainly wasn't Plan A or Plan B when they were in their pomp in the middle of the last decade. And a much-maligned giant is at the core of that style.

Joe O'Leary, the former referee, selector to John Allen and devotee to Na Piarsaigh, the club of the O hAilpin brothers, got an inkling of what was to come in a senior league match about four weeks earlier when they played the reigning champions Newtownshandrum.

"He was being marked by Pat Mulcahy's brother at full-back that day and he really gave him a torrid time," recalled O'Leary. "There were glimpses then that it could happen."

To go forward, however, Aisake had to take another significant step backwards. The league final in Thurles did not go well for him and triggered a wave of criticism that for O'Leary was "way over the top".

"It wasn't just being said that he was bad, it was being said that he was useless. You would want crocodile skin for that not to penetrate," figured O'Leary.

"But you have got to weigh up the family we are talking about. Look at the hurler Sean Og has made himself. Setanta in the AFL this season. Before he went to Australia I was managing the Na Piarsaigh seniors and Aisake was the free-taker.

"You would literally have to drag him off the field after training. If he missed one out of 100 he'd want to do it all over again. He was obsessive about it and had one of the strongest scoring ratios in the championship."

Thus, O'Leary is not surprised that Aisake has been able to smooth the rough edges to his game in a short space of time.

"You must remember he has been a long time out of the game. It wasn't going to happen instantly. There are still rough edges there.

"But Denis (Walsh) has done fantastic work with him. Denis is a wonderful coach. Some of his drills, adapted from other sports, are light years ahead.

"I think Aisake has probably benefited too from a more liberal approach to allowing players play with their clubs by the management."

As early as the 10th minute last Sunday Aisake had the Tipperary full-back line in a state of chaos when he brought down a John Gardiner delivery and forced a good save out of Brendan Cummins.

By the 25th minute he had latched on to an inviting Ronan Curran ball and was immediately surrounded by four Tipperary players. His yield was only a throw-in but by that stage he had done enough to see Padraic Maher despatched further outfield.


That Gardiner and Curran chose first to look up and assess Aisake's position before making their own shot selection underlines the adaption Cork have made in terms of how they play.

The middle personnel -- the O'Connors, Niall McCarthy, Tom Kenny and Cathal Naughton -- are still the same but they are no longer the entire focus for a Cork half-back line clearing its lines. Aisake has offered them a different way again.

"Setanta played the role before him and Brian Corcoran was well able to win a ball over his head. But Aisake reminded me of Ray Cummins at times. It was like watching him with those long gangling strides," recalled O'Leary.

Nothing reflected the level to which the opposing sets of players were tuned in to the frequency of this match more than the direction of the Cork puck-outs. Donal Og Cusack has long been acknowledged as master of the art of restarting a hurling match but Sunday was one of his greatest exhibitions in that aspect of the game.

If the line-out offers a decent platform for a rugby team then the puck-out is something most hurling teams, and particularly Cork, have worked on for a similar return. Cusack hit 19 puck-outs in the course of Sunday's quarter-final, seven of which could be deemed 'short'. Five of those seven puck-outs arrived safely in the hands of John Gardiner (three), Tom Kenny and Brian Murphy in the first quarter alone. How did Tipperary allow Gardiner to claim three unguarded in that period?

When Cusack went longer there was still method and direction in them, hit with a trajectory that suited the occupants of their midfield and half forwards. Not all were retained. In fact the majority of those hit longer than 50 metres presented Tipperary with an advantage.

Significantly his second-last puck-out went longest of all and into the hands of Michael Cussen who caught and delivered quickly into Aisake. No score accrued but as a template for things to come it has prospects.

Cork have not so much changed as adapted. Denis Walsh's biggest call has reaped a dividend we didn't have the faith to expect.

Irish Independent

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