Next time Cork need a sweeper they should turn to Fitzgibbon

Next time Cork need a sweeper they should turn to Fitzgibbon
Darragh Fitzgibbon with David Fitzgerald of Clare. Picture: INPHO/Oisin Keniry

SHORTLY after Waterford’s heavy loss to Limerick in the Gaelic Grounds last Sunday, Derek McGrath spoke to Oisin Langan for Newstalk’s Off the Ball show.

McGrath was magnanimous and humble in defeat, and perceptive in his analysis of Waterford’s summer, which had just concluded after three games. 

Now that Waterford were out of the championship, Langan asked McGrath how he and his side would approach their last game against Cork.

“With serious intent,” said McGrath. “A number of months ago, we spoke about this as a group. We didn’t want to be negative or pessimistic but we did speak about if we had to go into a dead rubber, have we the integrity to see it out? 

"And I think these lads do. It’s almost like a Test match in rugby. 

"You often wonder how the Lions approach a final Test game when they are 2-0 down. 

"So I think the integrity of our circle and what we have created over five years is at stake. 

"Other people are dependent too on our result against Cork. 

"So that flippancy that was perhaps put our way for the league won’t be at play in terms of our approach.” 

Waterford manager Derek McGrath with selector Dan Shanahan. Picture: INPHO/Morgan Treacy
Waterford manager Derek McGrath with selector Dan Shanahan. Picture: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

That resolve and willingness to scrap and battle for those inches may be tested in the real heat of battle but pride and trying to uphold that integrity protects this game from being the absolute dead-rubber many perceived it to be last Sunday.

Every championship game should mean something and Sunday certainly means a lot for Waterford. Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh will surpass Brendan Cummins’ record as the hurler with the all-time leading number of championship appearances, with 74. 

It will probably be Walsh’s last inter-county game. 

It is expected to be McGrath’s last game as Waterford manager. It could be Kevin Moran’s final appearance too.

Cork still hold all the advantages. They have had a two-week break while Waterford are playing their fourth game in 21 days. The Cork crowd should heavily outnumber Waterford’s. 

Cork will be fully focussed, especially when they need a result to ensure their place in the Munster final. But McGrath’s words should still act as a reminder that a routine game which Cork are fully expected to win may not be as straightforward given the huge emotion attached to this fixture for Waterford.

All the pressure is on Cork but they just need to be professional and to get the job done. Cork will win if they perform but the match also provides John Meyler and his management with an opportunity to further road-test the squad for what’s coming down the tracks.

Damien Cahalane’s struggles against Limerick have created some debate around the full-back position. Eoin Cadogan did well on Tom Devine in the relegation final, and he certainly physically matches up well with the Waterford man.

Cadogan has yet to feature in this championship but the squad is looking more stretched than it was at the outset of the summer; Alan Cadogan is injured; Robbie O’Flynn is still out; Darren Browne is also injured; Dean Brosnan’s performance against Limerick showed he is more effective coming into a game than as a starter.

Lorcán McLoughlin wasn’t listed on the panel of 26 for the Limerick game and the bench did look thin on championship experience.  An extra couple of weeks gives Michael Cahalane more time to get his hamstring injury fully healed. Cahalane played 10 minutes against Limerick while Jamie Coughlan came on in the 70th minute. 

Coughlan only joined the panel after the first round of the club championship which underlines the concerns management have about squad depth and experience. 

In that context, is Luke O’Farrell worth a recall? He had a solid season last year and played well for Middleton afterwards in the club championship.

Some of the Cork attack struggled at stages against Limerick, especially in the second half. They were hammered again for their scoring fadeouts. 

Cork need to be more consistent but that inconsistency within games is still slightly overblown in championship. Cork have hit tallies of 2-23, 1-23 and 1-25 in their three games. 

Two of those games were draws but Cork’s competitiveness in the championship is unquestioned, having lost just one of their last seven matches over the last two seasons. And that defeat carried as asterisk with Damien Cahalane’s sending off being a key turning point in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final against Waterford.

Cork should have lost against Limerick but they didn’t. Seamus Harnedy had one of his poorest games for Cork, especially from a scoring return, but he kept trying in the second half. 

Limerick's Cian Lynch and Seamus Harnedy of Cork. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie
Limerick's Cian Lynch and Seamus Harnedy of Cork. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

Harnedy went 44 minutes without a possession in the match and while he failed to convert three late shots, at least Harnedy was trying to make something happen in difficult circumstances.

Cork will take plenty of lessons from that game. In their Sunday Game analysis, Ger Loughnane and Brendan Cummins were critical of Mark Coleman, especially in the sweeper role. There were stages of that game when Coleman was too close to Damien Cahalane and Seamus Flanagan and Limerick found it easy to play the ball around him.

Coleman will learn from the experience but the best player Cork have to play that sweeper role is Darragh Fitzgibbon. He gave an exhibition as a sweeper against Limerick in the 2015 Munster minor semi-final in the Gaelic Grounds. 

Playing Fitzgibbon deeper may reduce his attacking threat but the modern sweeper is as much a creator than a stopper and Fitzgibbon still has the devastating pace to make something happen from that part of the pitch. That’s all food for thought for another day because Cork’s only priority now for Sunday is a performance. 

And a result. 

And to secure the draw or win required, Cork need to guard against complacency in a fixture that could be anything but as straightforward as everyone thinks it will be.

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