Can the Cork hurlers get Conor Lehane back to his brilliant best?

Can the Cork hurlers get Conor Lehane back to his brilliant best?

Conor Lehane, Cork, in action against Lee Chin, Wexford, in the 2015 when he hit 1-6 and was Man of the Match. Picture: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE

BACK in 2018, Kilkenny great JJ Delaney felt that reaching an All-Ireland final was the vital next step Cork needed to take.

They'd secured back-to-back provincial crowns and came agonisingly close on the big stage after an epic collision with Limerick in Croker. A year earlier a red card derailed them in defeat to Waterford. There was a real buzz about Cork hurling again, especially as the minors reached the 2017 All-Ireland final, bridging an 11-year gap, and the U21s the decider in '18, a first appearance at that stage in 20 seasons.

"It's an important year for them next year now, a Munster final next year probably won't be good enough for Cork, they will want to get to an All-Ireland final now if they want to show progression," argued Delaney.

Well, a Munster title sounds pretty appealing at this juncture.

The past two campaigns have been underwhelming, to say the least. In nine championship games, Cork suffered five defeats. And one of the four wins was against Westmeath.

The situation with Conor Lehane reflects that dip in form. Across 2017 and '18, he struck for 2-30. The goals were terrific, an improvised volley against Clare in the Páirc, a sizzling run and drilled effort at Croker past Limerick keeper Nickie Quaid.

There was a Man of the Match in the '17 upset against Tipp, when he was also on the frees. The following game against Waterford Lehane caught the sliotar on the wing with his 'wrong hand' before switching, on the run, and splitting the posts. It was an outrageous point.

Yet in 2019 and this season, he only contributed 11 scores, 0-4 of that in the facile rout of Westmeath last summer. He actually started like a rocket in the Munster semi-final loss to Waterford last month. 

He'd two classy points on the board in the first quarter and just before half-time assisted Shane Kingston after flicking the sliotar into his paw and then passing it overhead into space. There aren't too many hurlers in the Cork squad capable of pulling that off.

Conor Lehane with an overhead pass to set up a score for Shane Kingston against Waterford. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Conor Lehane with an overhead pass to set up a score for Shane Kingston against Waterford. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

However, after being replaced in the second half of that loss and then used off the bench in the Dublin and Tipp games he struggled badly. With his pace and skill, Lehane seems an obvious impact sub, but when he was deployed in that role in 2019 against Waterford and Clare, having gone off injured early in the Munster round-robin win over Limerick, he didn't catch fire either.

Just one point was accrued in those four appearances, but more tellingly his touch was heavy and he couldn't secure enough possession. If ever a Cork forward was a 'confidence player' it's Lehane, but he appeared similarly unsure in the All-Ireland quarter-final against Kilkenny in 2019.

Now 28, Lehane has been burdened by ridiculously high expectations since he torched Waterford in a league game at Páirc Uí Rinn as a 19-year-old. 

Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

At this stage, he's a lightning rod for Cork supporters' frustrations, with many forgetting just how many terrific games he's had in Rebel red, including the 2014 Munster final (0-5 from play) and 1-6 a year later against Wexford. 

His individual efforts in Midelton's county final defeat of Sars in 2013 were unparalleled in the modern era, shooting 2-10 of their 2-15. He continues to be the top-scorer and marquee attacker for the Magpies, with 3-30 in their three games over the summer.

However, hard questions will be asked of Kieran Kingston and the Cork management over the coming weeks as they put together a panel and plan for 2021. They could take a radical approach and jettison a number of experienced hurlers, having already handed starts to newcomers Jack O'Connor, Declan Dalton, Daire Connery and Seán O'Leary Hayes in the past month.

Lehane still has plenty to offer. If Cork can restore his self-belief and define a new role for him.

Even for the last quarter of games. Just last weekend, Tipp, Kilkenny and Limerick got match-winning contributions from their subs. 

Alan Flynn of Tipperary is tackled by Conor Lehane of Cork in the hurling qualifier defeat. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Alan Flynn of Tipperary is tackled by Conor Lehane of Cork in the hurling qualifier defeat. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

There is serious mileage on the clock though, as Lehane and a number of the current squad are on the go for a decade without capturing Liam McCarthy. That must be draining, especially when Cork appear so far away from ultimate glory.

CONOR LEHANE'S CHAMPIONSHIP SCORES FOR CORK...

2017:

v Tipp, 0-10 (5 play); 

v Waterford, 0-4; 

v Clare, 0-1; 

v Waterford, 0-2. 

TOTAL: 0-17 (12 play) 

2018:

v Clare, 1-2; 

v Tipp, 0-2; 

v Limerick, 0-3; 

v Waterford, 0-3; 

v Clare, 0-1; 

v Limerick, 1-3. 

TOTAL: 2-13.

Conor Lehane drills in a goal. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Conor Lehane drills in a goal. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

2019:

v Tipp, 0-3; 

v Limerick, 0-1, injured sixth minute; 

v Waterford, sub 0-1; 

v Clare, sub, scoreless; 

v Westmeath, 0-4; 

v Kilkenny, scoreless. 

TOTAL: 0-9. 

2020:

v Waterford, 0-2; 

v Dublin, sub scoreless; 

v Tipp, sub scoreless. 

TOTAL: 0-2

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