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Mark Ellis of Cork in action against Richie Reid of Kilkenny. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Mark Ellis of Cork in action against Richie Reid of Kilkenny. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
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The Christy O'Connor column: Stats show Rebels are on the right road

IN the 55th minute of Saturday night’s game in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, just after Conor Lehane had scored his ninth point with a free, Eoin Murphy took a short Kilkenny puckout.

After being played between two Kilkenny defenders and then driven straight down the field, the ball popped out of a Kilkenny forward’s hand, before Darragh Fitzgibbon dinked it back over the Kilkenny man’s head with his hurley.

Fitzgibbon drove it up the line to Lehane. The ball visibly bobbled on a couple of occasions in the sand on the pitch but Lehane’s touch was still brilliant.

As soon as he killed the ball, he passed it off to Fitzgibbon, who had continued his run at pace. After taking the pass, Fitzgibbon took four strides before nailing the score from the sideline.

On a January night laced with quality scores, that was the pick of the bunch.

It pushed Cork three ahead before Padraig Walsh landed an even better score, winning possession close to his own goal before soloing 50 yards, playing the ball off his hurley and nailing the point from distance. They were both exceptional scores but it was that kind of a night, where Cork just got a few more excellent scores than Kilkenny.

Cork were just that bit more clinical because Kilkenny actually had more shots at the target (39-34). Seventy-three shots at the target though, especially on a January evening, was testament to the quality of the match.

The critics would say that this didn’t contain the usual helter-skelter of Cork-Kilkenny games, that the match was often too loose, too open. Yet while you couldn’t expect anything less at this time of the year, the counter-argument is that it was a tribute to both teams to generate that volume of shots considering hurling in January should be made for defenders.

The Cats defence did seem to become a little disjointed after Cillian Buckley went off injured but Cork’s forward line tried to disorientate them all evening. They rotated constantly while they also had a clear plan by leaving two players close to the D, before breaking smartly once the ball was sprayed wide.

Cork had 11 different scorers from play, one more than Kilkenny. Cork used the ball really well for the majority of those scores but that kind of a scoring spread shows how Cork are developing more shooters.

Once again, Cork’s big men up front – Lehane and Seamus Harnedy – came up with the big plays.

It took Lehane a while to get into the game but once he did, he was devastating, both from play and placed balls. From 12 plays, he scored two points from play, had three scoring assists, while he was fouled for two converted frees. From 14 plays, Harnedy scored three points while he was fouled for three frees.

Shane Kingston may have drifted for a while after his early goal but he ended the match with very solid numbers, especially after those two first half wides. As well as his 1-1, Kingston had two scoring assists and was fouled for a converted free.

And yet the most pleasing aspect of Saturday evening for John Meyler was the performances of some of Cork’s young guns.

Tim O’Mahony was really impressive at centre-back, especially with his distribution. Sean O’Donoghue had a really good first half while Robbie O’Flynn had a good game, even if he did play too deep at times, especially when it allowed Cillian Buckley to come onto him, and hit three points from play.

From nine plays, O’Flynn scored two points and had two scoring assists. Jack O’Connor may have only made one play after his introduction but he showed his blazing speed when scoring his point.

Kilkenny edged the puckout stat 31-29 but Cork really stepped up in the physical stakes after the break. The stat for turnovers-in-possession had been 8-5 in Kilkenny’s favour in the first half but Cork won that category in the second half by 6-4.

James Maher of Kilkenny in action against Luke Meade and Shane Kingston. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
James Maher of Kilkenny in action against Luke Meade and Shane Kingston. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Cork’s overall standard of play after the break did move up to another level but it had to, especially in front of 16,000 supporters, most of which were locals, and given the context of the Kilkenny team they were facing.

Kilkenny will always fight tooth and nail in whatever game they play but, of the panel of 26 named in the programme, only eight would be deemed experienced players. Cork seemed to self-acknowledge as much at half-time and it showed in the second half.

Another positive was the number of goal chances Cork created, which is surely another facet of Cork’s play Meyler will be looking to develop. Cork only raised one green flag but Eoin Murphy made two brilliant saves in the first half while Cork eked out another two half chances after the break that could have ended up in the net on another evening.

In the end, when Cork needed to be clinical in another form, they were, outscoring Kilkenny by three points down the home straight. It was a fitting opening night under the bright lights in the new Park but the one negative of the evening was the pitch, which clearly was an issue, because it was in such an unsatisfactory state.

Time and the weather will obviously improve the surface but they need to get it right with Cork having two home championship games in the summer. The pitch hadn’t hosted a game in three months but that amount of rest wasn’t enough to restore the damage to the surface.

The holes and marks on the field had been filled with sand, which often made it increasingly difficult for players to judge the bounce and get their first touch right. That was one another one of the reasons which made Fitzgibbon’s score so special.

Lehane’s touch needed to be perfect. And it was.