Cork minor hurlers have structure and skill but with there's room to improve

Cork minor hurlers have structure and skill but with there's room to improve

Cork captain Eoin Downey keeps the sliotar in play, despite being tackled by Oisin O’Donnell of Clare. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane

THERE was a lot to like about the Cork minor hurlers' victory over Clare on Saturday at Semple Stadium. 

They were strong favourites beforehand, despite the presence of a number of Harty Cup-winning hurlers from St Flannan's in the Banner line-up. The pressure was on to deliver, especially as the round-robin format has been changed to straight knockout.

With Donal Óg Cusack in charge, as well as Tom Kenny, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín and Kieran 'Fraggie' Murphy in the backroom, the expectation was Cork had the nous and the talent to progress to a semi-final against Limerick.

That was the case ultimately, but full credit must go to the young players, a number of them only 16, for getting the job done in style in the second half. The haul of 1-24 reflected well on the forwards, helped by a return of six points from subs Jack Leahy (4) and William Buckley (2). 

All-action midfielders Brian Keating and Alex Quirke landed 0-2 apiece, three of them in the critical third quarter, where Donal Óg Cusack's side opened a four-point lead before blitzing Clare after the second-half water-break.

Marquee attacker Ben Cunningham top-scored with 0-9, three from play and all of them tasty, but the platform for success was laid in the half-back line and midfield. The rearguard was shielded by Eoin Downey, in particular as he offered the same presence as his older brother Rob does, James Dwyer and Ben O'Connor, who had a brilliant last 20 minutes. 

They were helped by Cork's deep-lying midfielders and forwards, with four deployed in attack at numerous stages.

Mark Howell worked hard all through. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane
Mark Howell worked hard all through. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane

The full-back line was solid too, Cork conceding just 0-5 from play and the only slight criticism defensively was they coughed up a couple of cheap frees. Still, there was the aggression you'd expect from a Rebel side under Cusack and co.

Keeper Brion Saunderson was no doubt disappointed with the first Clare goal from a Jarlath Collins' free but pulled off a quality save at a key stage early in the second half.

Midleton's Quirke, the vice-captain, was extremely mobile and also distributed the sliotar intelligently. 

There a clear structure to Cork's approach, with two inside forwards and two or three across the 65. Wearing number seven, Michael Mullins offered cover as an auxiliary midfielder before Buckley was brought on and into a more advanced role.

Colin Walsh's size caused problems and he struck for 1-1 and had a second goal ruled out for a square ball. 

Cunningham, the son of Cork selector Ger, was marked out for close attention having starred for the Barrs in their minor county victory.

Ben Cunningham is tackled by Ian McNamara. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane
Ben Cunningham is tackled by Ian McNamara. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane

Though he took a while to raise a flag from play, he was superb once Cork got into their groove. 

Jack Leahy will be a strong candidate to start against Limerick, given the quality of the Kiltha Óg club man's shooting. Buckley was very lively too, but the selectors might prefer the Barrs tyro as a game-changer off the bench.

A few of the Cork crew were a bit nervous, and occasionally selfish, in Thurles but this experience will surely stand to them in the semi.

For now, that's down for Friday week, October 30 at Semple Stadium again. Credit to those organising this quarter-final, they ran a tight ship with the threat of Covid hanging over the GAA and the country.

If the games can continue, they at least offer some respite from the gloom.

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