NORMALLY in the week leading up to Cork’s first championship match of the year we would have some idea of the likely starting line-up based on a league campaign.
This year, as with most things right now, all bets are off.
All will be revealed in the coming days, as Kieran Kingston’s side face Waterford in Semple Stadium in the Munster semi-final on Saturday afternoon. Yet with a few days to go before the official team announcement a number of questions remain unanswered re the likely starting positions of certain key players, as well as the likelihood of whether we will see any newcomers thrown in at the deep end.
There realistically aren’t too many possible newcomers for Saturday, with Billy Hennessy, Daire Connery and Sean O’Leary-Hayes being the only likely bolters.
Darragh Fitzgibbon’s unfortunate hamstring injury has left a sizeable hole in Cork’s middle eight and it will be interesting to see how Kingston fills it.
Mark Coleman could be moved to midfield, with Hennessy or Connery debuting at wing-back. Given Coleman’s recent performances in an advanced position for Blarney in the Premier Intermediate Championship, it would seem a logical step for Cork to tap into this attacking resource, and especially so in Fitzgibbon’s absence.
Earlier this year we stated that Tim O’Mahony should be chosen in one position going forward, and opined that a forward role would suit him the most. It would appear that he is likely to be deployed in defence again though, with a right wing-back berth a possibility.
Cork know that they must maximise the influence of the ‘big men’ in their panel, especially this winter, and they appear intent on getting the maximum out of the Newtown hurler.
Robert Downey will start in the Cork rearguard, and going on his performances for Glen Rovers this year he already looks a player that Kingston can build his defence around from the centre-back position.
Up front Declan Dalton, if fit, appears to be ready to take up a pivotal role in the Cork attack. Many observers have expressed that his lack of pace might hold him back at inter-county level, but his aggression and supreme ball-striking ability mean that he can augment what is already a high scoring attacking unit.
Unearthing new talent is all well and good, but if Cork do not fix some of their failings from recent years then they can expect to come up short again.
This week GAA data analyst Brian McDonnell published his findings into analysis he conducted on the 2019 All-Ireland Championship, and unfortunately some of the stats he came up will have made for uncomfortable reading within the Cork panel.
The ‘work-rate ratio’ was calculated by dividing a team’s total number hooks, blocks and tackles into the number of possessions enjoyed by the opposition.
It’s no surprise that Galway, Limerick and Tipp were the top three sides in this category, but it is quite telling, if worrying, to see that of the twelve counties assessed, only Westmeath finished below Cork in terms of work rate. And at least Westmeath can offset this deficiency with the boast that they were the best side in the country in terms of winning rucks. Cork, alas, were rock bottom in that category.
We can talk about selections until the cows come home, but until the Cork hurlers start to match their rivals' scores in these categories then the likelihood is that they will continue to come up short.
And with the championship about to take place in the depths of winter, in less than ideal conditions, then you would assume that there will be a premium on a team’s ability to hook, block and tackle the opposition and win dirty ball in rucks.
Which brings us to the Liam Cahill factor. Cahill is in his first year as manager of the Waterford senior hurlers, and it will be interesting to see whether he can get the most out of such talented hurlers as the Bennett’s and Austin Gleeson.
One thing that Cahill will expect of his side is that they will outwork Cork, and that is not just McDonnell’s stats talking. Cahill was the manager of the Tipperary U21 and U20 sides that beat Cork in the last two All-Ireland finals at those age grades, and in both those finals, his Tipp sides did a number on Cork in the work rate stakes.
He will expect to do the same on Saturday, and if Cork aren’t ready for championship fare hurling then history is likely to repeat.