A new system as well as fresh faces are vital to improve the Cork hurlers' defence

A new system as well as fresh faces are vital to improve the Cork hurlers' defence

St Finbarr's Billy Hennessy racing awy from from Imokilly's John Cronin and Paudie O'Sullivan during the Cork SHC semi-final at Páirc Uí Rinn. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

A QUICK look at the 18 All-Star hurling nominees for the defensive positions for this year says a lot about Cork hurling; with the Rebels being the only side, that reached the quarter-final stage, NOT to have a nominee for a defensive All-Star.

Laois’ Jack Kelly got in on the act, while Dublin pair Chris Crummey and Eoghan O’Donnell got nominations, despite the fact that Dublin did not even reach the last eight stage.

The absentee of a Leesider paints a picture in terms of how Cork hurling is viewed throughout the country. Everyone seems to see Cork as a good, skilful side, that can beat anyone on their day, but ultimately, when it comes to the crunch, they were found wanting in certain departments, with defence being one of these. 

The stats from this year’s championship would, unfortunately, appear to back up this.

Cork lost three games in this year’s championship, and in all three games they shipped huge scores. 2-28 was conceded in the opening Munster round robin tie against Tipperary, 2-23 in the driving rain against Clare in Ennis, and 2-27 against Kilkenny in the quarter-final at Croke Park. 

Even when dismissing Westmeath by 1-40 to 0-20 the Cork rearguard were giving up a scoring chance every second minute. You simply cannot expect to prevail at the business end of the championship with such loose play.

Addressing Cork’s defensive frailties will be one of new manager Kieran Kingston’s main aims after two years away from the helm.

Colm Spillane's return will be welcome. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie
Colm Spillane's return will be welcome. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

It is not even that Cork have poor defenders. Individually there were some brilliant displays this year. Niall O’Leary was outstanding in his first two games against Tipp and Limerick. Eoin Cadogan was Man of the Match in the Gaelic Grounds win in Limerick, while Mark Ellis was also a star that day. Stephen McDonnell did a tremendous man marking job on TJ Reid.

When it came down to it though the Cork defence, as a collective, were found wanting. Cork could replace every single defender, but if they play in the exact same open manner, with the same deficiencies further up the pitch, then they will achieve the same results. 

Cork’s approach, both with and without the ball, must change. 

Selecting ball-winners and players more suited to picking up scraps in the middle eight will make a huge difference to the pressure the defence is under. It can be the difference between a defender looking like an All-Star or ending up being subbed.

In saying all that the Cork defence will more than likely be the place with the most intense competition for places next year. A new management team brings a clean slate, so players who would have felt that they never got a fair crack of the whip under John Meyler may now get a chance to stake a claim, while young players just coming to maturity will no doubt also be considered. 

A few returning sick notes will provide even more competition for starting berths.

Colm Spillane is the obvious one in this regard. The Castlelyons man was a huge loss for Cork in 2019. His versatility means that he could be considered for a number of positions.

St Finbarr's Billy Hennessy had injury issues but he is the type of hardy player that Cork are crying out for in the half-back line.

One of the main conversations that Kingston is likely to be having with his management team over the coming weeks and months is who should occupy the pivotal number six jersey. John Meyler gambled on Newtown’s Tim O’Mahony, before abandoning it after one championship game against Tipperary. 

Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Picture: Eddie O'Hare

There are a couple viable options, although they might not be the most obvious. Bill Cooper and Colm Spillane. Both could be trialled in the league, but preference would be given to playing Cooper there, while keeping Spillane in the full-back line. 

O’Mahony proved in his cameo versus Kilkenny last year that he could be a serious operator as a midfielder. The experiment of him being a centre-back should certainly be put to bed. If O’Mahony was to be the physical midfielder this would free up Cooper to drop back to six, which might suit him anyway, given he turns 32 next year.

Mark Coleman is another player who would benefit from a positional change, moving from wing-back to a more attacking role at midfield. 

The classy Blarney man can be targeted in the seven slot, with opposition coaches landing big awkward wing-forwards down on top of him. The freedom of a midfield role would allow him to be more expressive, and push Daragh Fitzgibbon into the attack.

This would, of course, leave both wing-back spots vacant with Chris Joyce recovering from a cruciate injury, but the likes of Chris O’Leary, Robert Downey and Sean O’Leary-Hayes, and Hennessy, will all be hopeful. Further back, it only seems a matter of when, not if, Ger Mellerick makes ones of the corner-back slots his own.

The inclusion of former Cork defenders Diarmuid O’Sullivan, Pat Mulcahy and Brian Corcoran, as well as inter county goalkeepers Ger Cunningham and Christy O’Connor, to the management ticket, should ensure that ample specialist attention is given to improving Cork’s defending, both on an individual and collective basis.

You would, therefore, expect a big improvement in 2020 in terms of Cork’s execution of the defensive arts of hurling.

If Cork are to have any success then this is a must.

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