Key questions for the Cork hurlers: New faces, Fitzgibbon's injury, Lehane's form

Key questions for the Cork hurlers: New faces, Fitzgibbon's injury, Lehane's form

Cork's Conor Lehane racing away from Clare's Patrick O'Connor to score his goal during the 2013 All-Ireland hurling final at Croke Park. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

THIS new winter All-Ireland series throws up some interesting questions for the Cork hurlers.

1. How important is physicality? 

It could be the difference between Declan Dalton, Aidan Walsh and Tim O'Mahony starting or coming off the bench. And it surely means Colm Spillane, recovered from a hand injury, Eoin Cadogan, on the way back from a knee issue, Damien Cahalane and Rob Downey, have to feature in the rearguard.

Colm Spillane injured his hand for Castlelyons but is set to return against Waterford. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Colm Spillane injured his hand for Castlelyons but is set to return against Waterford. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Chris Joyce, back from a season out through injury, will be in the mix too, though Stephen McDonnell and Mark Ellis weren't prominent back, way back actually, when the campaign started in early 2020. McDonnell hurled well for the Glen in the county championship.

Bill Cooper will be setting the tone as always at centre-field, though he was number six in the league. He'll be critical in breaking up the play.

Having Walsh and O'Mahony, or at least one of them, in the half-forwards, would alleviate the pressure on Seamus Harnedy to secure primary possession. Dalton is a ball-winning option inside cut from a different cloth to Patrick Horgan and Alan Cadogan, very much a 'top of the ground' corner-forward.

2. What new players are ready to shake up the first 15? 

Seán O'Leary Hayes was trialed across the league but his club Midleton didn't feature in the latter stages of the championship. Dáire Connery and Brian Turnbull have been touted as senior prospects since starring as minors in 2017 without making a breakthrough yet.

Brian Turnbull chased by Kilkenny's Conor Murphy. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Brian Turnbull chased by Kilkenny's Conor Murphy. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

The likes of Shane Barrett, Blarney, and Blackrock's Alan Connolly have been impressive. However, they're only 19 and would really have to rip it up at U20 level before progressing. Barrett missed the Munster opener against Kerry and that whole championship is now on hold.

The timing of these games won't help rookies came in from the cold.

3. Can the loss of Darragh Fitzgibbon with a hamstring injury be off-set? 

Fitzgibbon was brilliant for Charleville in their comeback win over Dalton's Fr O'Neill's in the SAHC final. His speed and shooting on the run from angles style is very difficult to replicate. 

Darragh Fitzgibbon, Charleville, about to win this ball from Tomas Mellerick, Fr O’Neill’s. Picture: Dan Linehan
Darragh Fitzgibbon, Charleville, about to win this ball from Tomas Mellerick, Fr O’Neill’s. Picture: Dan Linehan

Erin's Own flier Robbie O'Flynn is suspended for the Munster semi-final. A pity, as he was excellent at club level across the summer. 

Shane Kingston has been electric since last winter, first for UCC, collecting the third level Player of the Season, in the opening rounds of the league with Cork, and then for Douglas. He shot a staggering 0-36, 19 points from play, in just four matches. His blistering pace and direct approach can compensate somewhat with Fitzgibbon out.

We'll probably see Mark Coleman in midfield. Blarney's PIHC success was built on his ability to manage the game and score as a deep-lying wing-forward.

4. Will the underdog tag suit the Rebels? 

Cork face Waterford on Halloween at Semple Stadium with a place in the provincial decider up for grabs. While there is a backdoor option, both counties will be determined to attempt to get to Croke Park in two steps, especially as they've avoided Limerick and Tipp in the draw.

Kieran Kingston's side are favourites next weekend on the basis of form in recent seasons, especially with Déise free-taker Pauric Mahony injury. 

Yet the likely absence of Fitzgibbon cancels that out, while new Waterford manager Liam Cahill has an excellent record against Cork with Tipp underage teams, All-Irelands at minor, U21 and U20 reflect as much. 

In the bigger scheme of things, neither county has been given a chance of lifting Liam McCarthy. Limerick are fancied by many, Tipp are the holders, Kilkenny made last year's final, Galway have size for winter hurling and Wexford have done well on heavy pitches in the league.

5. Is there a kick in Conor Lehane?

When Lehane is on-song, he's a joy. He has the pace and skill to go with accuracy off both sides. He blasted in sensational goals at Croke Park against Clare and Limerick, was unstoppable in wins over Wexford and Waterford, hit 0-5 from play in the 2014 Munster final.

At times, the now 28-year-old struggled to live up to the hype of being so well-known since minor. Consistency has been a real issue and 2019 was a real disappointment.

 Conor Lehane, Midleton, tackling Donnacha Murphy, Douglas. Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Conor Lehane, Midleton, tackling Donnacha Murphy, Douglas. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

For Midleton, he landed 3-30 in three games in the summer, 2-11 from play. A good sign? Perhaps.

Tipp got a serious return from a resurgent John 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer last year. Cork need a similar revival from Lehane.

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