THE Cork hurlers averaged 31 points in the six championship matches they played in 2019.
It’s an impressive number. It’s an All-Ireland winning tally.
Looking back at the scoring exploits of all the major hurling counties last year, only the eventual All-Ireland champions Tipperary posted higher. This might lead you to conclude that all is rosy with the Rebel attack, and if the defence was tweaked Cork could make that leap towards glory.
Of course, it’s never that simple.
Having skilful, scoring forwards has never been the problem. The issue has always been around supplying these forwards, and also balancing the need to start flair players while ensuring opposition defences do not dominate proceedings.
It is a conversation that has been happening every winter in Cork for a quarter of a century now – the need for more ball-winners in the forward line.
The reality is that Cork’s forwards don’t spoil the opposition defences consistently enough, which means the ball does not stick in the opposition half for long enough to keep the pressure off the Cork defence. They end up conceding too much, with too much to do at the other end.
Returning manager Kieran Kingston, and his experienced new crew, will have to come up with the perfect balance in this regard. Cork must keep the natural flair they are renowned for but must become a more robust outfit.
They must become more awkward to play against. That is the key to going to the next level.
It sounds simple, but if it was that easy then various former Cork managers would have stumbled upon the perfect formula years ago.
It is not just a case of throwing in a trio of 6’ 2” targets in the half-forward line but at the same time Cork have recently been completely over-reliant on former captain Seamus Harnedy to win primary possession. This has to stop. It is unrealistic, and unfair, to expect him to carry the can in this manner. The likes of Kilkenny, Limerick and Galway don’t so why should Cork?
In fairness to John Meyler he had realised this last year and had duly introduced Aidan Walsh as an extra option for long deliveries. The Kanturk man’s untimely injury prior to the quarter-final against Kilkenny ultimately proved fatal to Cork’s All-Ireland bid.
Nearly every other top hurling county would grab your hand off for inside forwards of the calibre of Patrick Horgan and Alan Cadogan. Scoring is not going to be an issue with them about.
Conor Lehane, Jack O’Connor, Shane Kingston and Brian Turnbull are also options, although it may well be the more physical Declan Dalton who brings that prolific full-forward unit to the next level.
The Fr O’Neill’s man has been really learning his trade in the 14 geansaí in 2019. The fact that he has been picking up a bag full of medals for club and division is testament to how prolific he has been from both play and from dead balls.
Many question whether he has the pace for inter-county hurling, but when you have a player who can strike the ball like Dalton does then you simply must utilise him. He’s a big and physical and it’s not like Cork short of blistering pace already.
Other players can take up the slack in this regard. The pros that Dalton’s abrasiveness and hurling brings to the table far outweighs the cons that any perceived lack of pace brings.
Dalton would release Harnedy to cause havoc on the 40, as in recent years Cork have needed the St Ita’s man to firefight in both lines.
Darragh Fitzgibbon does most of his hurling for Charleville up front and Cork need to start utilising him as a half-forward. He is the perfect modern wingman. Tall, strong and with searing pace, he would be a nightmare to handle.
In recent years, Daniel Kearney, Luke Meade, Conor Lehane and Shane Kingston were on the wings, but none of that quartet are physically imposing. They have key qualities but if they aren’t performing some vital role linking play or shooting the lights out they might have to drop to the bench.
With a forward unit containing Harnedy, Fitzgibbon, Cadogan, Dalton and Horgan, a workhorse like Aidan Walsh would offer balance and it size. With the likes of Tim O’Mahony and Bill Cooper at midfield there really should be enough physicality in that middle eight to ensure that ball does not come flowing back.
Accepting this is all winter talk, you’d still hope Conor Lehane and Shane Kingston show their potential and demand starting jerseys, or that Robbie O’Flynn and Conor Cahalane step up another level as inter-county hurlers. Perhaps even Tommy O’Connell, with his pace, or Sean Twomey, with his power, can make a charge, though both are still U20.
That is what the winter and spring tournaments are all about, and form must be rewarded, but there is no harm in having a long term plan either, as long as it is a plan that can work, and take Cork hurling to the next level.