THE Cork U20 hurlers came out the wrong side of an instant classic Munster final against Liam Cahill’s Tipperary side at Semple Stadium, thanks to Jake Morris’ last-minute goal.
Such is the nature of epic battles, someone must come out second best.
Every one of that Cork team should be commended though, as it takes two to tango, and this game was a wonderful advertisement for the game. The loss was undoubtedly a bitter pill to swallow for this panel, but there remains plenty to play for yet.
An All-Ireland semi-final against Leinster champions Kilkenny awaits today, and if they negotiate that considerable hurdle then they will probably be facing into a rematch against Tipp in the All-Ireland final, but this time at a neutral venue.
Some of the players’ reputations were greatly enhanced in the Munster defeat. Sean O’Leary Hayes was immense in defense for Denis Ring’s side, and the Midleton youngster looks ready for a tilt at the seniors.
Alongside him Ger Millerick was also extremely impressive, and bar that tortuous last minute, he held Tipp’s senior star Morris well, while team captain James Keating and tenacious corner back Eoin Roche saw their stocks rise on the night also.
Further ahead, Tommy O’Connell looked his usual self, buzzing around the middle, while Courcey Rovers’ Sean Twomey once again impressed as the perfect archetypal ball-winning wing forward.
Other players may not have been overly satisfied with their performances, but they are all young, and indeed they have the opportunity to put things right in this championship yet.
Despite the above praise, however, the big take away must be that once again a talented Cork side were second best on the night when it came to winning dirty ball.
We might like to think that Cork genetics are far superior to those of other counties, but alas science has yet to prove such a theory. Therefore we must assume that there is nothing in the Corkonian DNA that make Cork hurlers less able to contest rucks, compete for aerial ball and make fewer gang tackles than other hurling counties, yet this seems to be the case for the past quarter of a century or so now.
This is not necessarily implying that Cork hurlers do not possess work rate. They do. It’s just that you very rarely see a Cork team display the same manic displays of work rate that you regularly get from other teams.
There were plenty of examples in the Munster decider where a Cork player would gain possession and he would be instantly surrounded by two or three Tipp players, ensuring that the snared Cork player struggled to even get the ball away. The Tipp players chased and harried in droves, not allowing the skilful Cork side to settle for a second.
And the salient point is that they seemed comfortable doing this. Cork, on the other hand, were more inclined to chase and work as individuals, which made it easier for Tipp to get the ball forward into their dangerous attack.
This scenario was almost a rinse/repeat of what occurred in the senior All-Ireland quarter-final between Cork and Kilkenny when once again a Cork team were outworked on the big stage.
The perception – no scratch that – the reality is that when teams face Cork they know that if they congest space and make it into a dogfight then Cork will struggle. Cork just are not comfortable in these types of battles.
The only conclusions to make are (a) that these teams are employing tactics or training drills that Cork aren’t or (b) Cork are simply picking players not suited to this style of hurling.
If the answer is the former then whoever is in charge of ANY Cork hurling team from now on needs to adapt quickly and to ensure that all Cork teams are battle ready when faced with such approaches.
If the answer is the latter then maybe it is time to rethink what type of player Cork keeps selecting.
Sure, we all would prefer the speedy, wristy fella over the ‘dog’ all day, but which would you rather have beside you when you’re in the midst of a dogfight?
Twomey is a prime example of this. He wouldn’t have been under consideration in many eyes for a place on this team at the start of the year, and yet now he's one to watch, exactly the type of player that Cork always struggles to produce. He’s big, strong, can win his own ball, tackles all day, and is well able to take a score to boot.
This is undoubtedly a very talented Cork U20 team. As a collective, they probably felt they should have won a minor All-Ireland two years ago, but the final against Galway got away from them for various different reasons.
They have an opportunity to make amends for that defeat now, as well as for last Tuesday’s loss to Tipp, by going on and securing an all too rare underage All-Ireland title for Cork in the coming weeks, but there is one small problem – that are going to have to negotiate two more dogfights to do so.
Kilkenny will arguably be even more ‘in your face’ than Tipp were. They are the Leinster champions after all, and they won’t want to be sent packing from the championship by Munster’s second-best.
Therefore valuable lessons will have to be learned by the Cork players and management. They will have to cope better with the relentless press that they will encounter in the semi-final.
They will also have to have a better puck out strategy, and they can’t have their own attack almost completely shut down just because the opposition places a sweeper in front of Brian Turnbull.
Opportunity knocks for this Cork team, but only if they have taken on board the lessons learned from the painful Tipp defeat.