NOW we can believe Cork football is back where it belongs, we’re going to Croke Park.
All the promise and hope and positive energy from that Munster final was turned into something significant here, a first proper statement win for Ronan McCarthy. We’d been told this was building and a performance of intent and collective will and of genuinely good fluent football proved it.
The increasing roars that accompanied the scoring of 4-20 seemed to be a realisation this is what it felt like to watch a Cork football team finding itself again. After all the grim self-doubt, Cork 2019 feels different, and it overwhelmed Laois here.
If we’d wondered about where Cork were going to find enough scores and questioned the fluency of the attacking game-plan, this was a real response. They were wonderfully direct and ruthless, moved the ball at savage speed and ran the ball or kicked long as necessary to open Laois up.
Mark Collins and Brian Hurley were devastating inside, combining perfectly. Collins scored 1-4 from play, set up 1-2 for Hurley; Hurley scored 2-4, assisted 1-2 for Collins.
Collins is in career-year form and Hurley looks properly back to that mode where he can scar any defender. The move for the game-changing goal at the start of the second half was a stunning example.
Paul Kerrigan kicked a long diagonal the other side of Mark Collins’ marker, Collins passed across goal to an inrushing Hurley who first-timed a volley past the Laois keeper – even having the confidence to finish like that was a sign that all is well. The second was pure Hurley, a long James Loughrey kick-pass, that spin and five-yard instinctive sprint to open the goal chance and that lethal blast into the far corner.
Hurley had mentioned that ‘ridiculous’ speed had been missing since he came back but he showed it here a few times, for one point in the first half he just accelerated past his marker at a different, unexpected pace and it was thrilling to see two or three defenders unable to control him.
Mark Collins has always been used as a playmaker but he’s stepped into the scorer role so well here and took big shots on when needed. One point in the first half especially where Ian Maguire had been blocked and Cork needed a score, it was he who rushed onto the break, burst past a few tackles and kicked on the run from distance.
Hurley and Collins were so good and yet Cork had other standouts and methods as well. Again Ruairí Deane was colossal and it’s almost getting boring (almost) to mention his running power as a potentially unstoppable route to chances. He kicked two scores of real quality from distance, where he basically just decided he was going to score and went by a bunch of what may as well have been tackle bags.
He tore down the middle to set up two really impressive direct-running scores for Kevin O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Toole in the first half and kick-passed well as plan B. It was his floated kick-pass into Brian Hurley to set up goal three for Mark Collins and we counted four direct assists and several other involvements.
We can’t remember when Cork looked to have so many threats in attacking play – 3-18, 3-10 and now 4-20 in championship scoring tells a better story than the 2-4 and 0-13 of last summer.
There was just so much to like about the sparky interplay of Hurley-Collins, you could forget this performance was about more than scoring. Cork again turned every single ball into a contest and eventually just wore Laois down with their relentless chasing and intensity. They went man-v-man, stepped up on the kick-out and won all the collisions.
Small details added up. Mattie Taylor got a hand in to disrupt a kick-out he had no right to; it led to a Cork score. Ian Maguire came through piles of bodies to get a fist in and hounded that middle eight for turnovers.
Liam O’Donovan again gave a performance of remarkable influence and energy. He got a hand in to win possession back over and over again. In the first half he attacked the ball from a Laois kick-out, Cork got possession and a score for Hurley.
In the second half, again an aggressive turnover led to a Paul Kerrigan score. He drove forward down the touchline and showed great conviction to punch a score.
In that opening quarter, where Cork had lost the first three kick-outs long, it was O’Donovan who stepped into space and actually demanded the short ball from Mark White. In that last 10 minutes, Kevin O’Driscoll was still thumping into tackles and Sean White was still looking to link play with composure.
It was in keeping with the sort of honesty and spirit Cork have developed here, where the players have stepped up to the standards and character demanded by Ronan McCarthy. Massive kudos to the Cork management for this past month.
That pride has been the core element. They added the quality on Saturday evening, where as well as driven they were very good too.
It might not be that important but it felt like the crowd responded to every positive play, that there’s a team now everybody can believe in and get behind. Cork have answered every question for now, even if they’re about to get a lot harder.