THERE was a great moment late in the first half of the Cork-Laois game that gets to the heart of this new Cork.
Ruairí Deane had just won a ball from a kick-out and, as he took a few steps through midfield, five Cork players — Mattie Taylor and Ronan O’Toole to the left, Ian Maguire, Luke Connolly and Sean White, to the right — sprinted full speed into the spaces 20 metres either side of Deane, a relentless wave of attacking pace as Laois defenders failed to keep up.
O’Toole got the pass to run in and kick a point and one of the Laois players turned with his hands on his head, as if to wonder what had happened.
This is Cork football 2019, running hard and aggressively, attacking every ball, and it’s remarkable that the feeling has shifted so much, that a game with Dublin is no reason to change, that the momentum and belief-building just might overshadow any need to retreat into themselves in the face of the scary Dublin monster.
Last summer, when we spoke with Donncha O’Connor, he said that he’d fancied meeting Dublin to properly see how close Cork could get, but he sort of chuckled at how silly it sounded at the same time.
Now, it’s reality and it says something that a game that would have conjured worries of embarrassment a few months ago feels kind of exciting. Cork versus Dublin in Croke Park? Sure why not?
It’s impossible to ignore that this is Dublin and a reality check could well be coming, and yet there’s something different there, as well. Cork won’t have been focusing every aspect of play all year on how it might work to beat Dublin in the same way that Kerry/Tyrone/Mayo/Donegal have been doing.
Cork have played with abandon — doing their own thing — and it creates this strange dynamic now. You could argue that Cork have a certain freedom to just go and play the game, with little pressure to win, and, then again, there’s a worry that the mentality and style that have been a strength up to now could be very quickly dismantled if Dublin turn up in ruthless mode.
Let’s take kick-outs. Cork have gone after restarts with pressing. Against Laois, Cork dominated the collisions, contested everything, and wouldn’t let Laois take handy possession.
Cork competed against Kerry on long ball, but got caught at times by the speed with which Shane Ryan got the ball into play. This is Dublin, though, and if Cork step up in Croke Park and Cluxton starts pinging into spaces, the one-on-one battles will be crucial and there’s that risk of getting caught with overloads, if the first man is beaten physically.
Mark White’s decisions on short possession, or long contested kicks, can alter the flow of the game. If Cork get beaten up on either restart, it’ll be a long night, but a break-even would allow some kind of control of the tempo of the game.
There’s just that extra pressure on every area of the field. The one-on-one defending in the full-back line has held reasonably well (apart from David Clifford and a few scores from Laois in that opening 20 minutes) and looked great when Cork have contested ball kicked in, but it’d only take Paul Mannion or Cormac Costello to shoot the lights out for Cork to be made look naïve.
Cork could end up shipping more than twenty points without doing a lot wrong, but they will try and restrict the damage of green flags by someone like Con O’Callaghan or a rampaging half-back line. It’ll be interesting to see Ian Maguire match up with Brian Fenton around the field. Liam O’Donovan and Mattie Taylor will be better for the experience.
Cork will look to cause their own problems and there’s something in their power and hard running (and willingness to go after one-on-one battles) that should always create chances. Mark Collins is scoring at a serious rate and Brian Hurley looks capable of taking on everyone again, if given ball and space in the right areas.
Deane is in All-Star form and if he’ll now have to deal with the attention, he’s in the sort of zone that he’s basically unstoppable in possession, unless bottled up by bodies and also is hitting that sweet spot with kicks, as well. He hit Collins and Hurley repeatedly with ball-hopping in front in Thurles and was involved in more or less everything Cork created.
It’ll be fascinating to see what that trio of Deane/Hurley/Collins can come up with in this Super 8 group, if they can push on to that next step of influencing big games week after week, against the likes of Dublin and Tyrone. Cork will need to keep finding 20 points a game if they’re going to win matches here.
Only one game from six in this group last year had a winner with less than that.
Collins and Hurley probably need to keep chipping in with 12-15 points of that. Deane needs to be an eight out of 10 in two of the games.
How far can Cork step up now?
Any game preview with Dublin has this cloud, where the three possible results of the game are generally reduced to one question: how much will Dublin win by?
You can do the maths on the possibility of a Cork win — the Dubs have lost one championship game since 2012; Cork haven’t beaten any elite team in that time — and if you can make a case for Cork’s confidence and positivity and directness causing problems, the gap is just too big to make up so quickly.
But there are outcomes here that are more desirable than others. A blowout Dublin win is possible against just about anybody, so can hardly be ruled out, and if it might not be fatal, Cork could do without being completely devastated. Roscommon never recovered from game one last year.
Most everyone would take a performance and a reasonable defeat to move on (if not the players themselves), but Cork will need more cleverness in game management, and more bravery even than they’ve shown so far, to get through this opener intact.
It might not be enough to beat Dublin, but this whole process of watching Cork become something more has been encouraging and thrilling and great fun. You get the feeling the players would like to stretch this out a bit longer, that they feel they’re not finished with the summer yet.
It’s in this group to have a go and see what happens and we’d expect that spiky aggression again — after the Laois game, Brian Hurley said to bring it on.
It feels like progress to be thinking of this kind of challenge at all. Three games to find out where exactly Cork 2019 can take this feeling.