FOR a group that had progressed to the Munster final and a slot in the All-Ireland semis, Cork were pretty subdued in the Páirc on Wednesday evening.
There was no whooping and hollering in the dressing room. The management wore haunted looks on their faces. If you didn’t know the result you’d have thought Cork lost.
They spent a while in a huddle on the pitch after their escape to victory, no doubt acknowledging that while they dug it out another sluggish 60 minutes in the final and Limerick or Tipp will be provincial champions.
It was a tricky fixture for Denis Ring’s charges. The core of the starting line-up is tied up with the seniors, with Mark Coleman, Shane Kingston and Darragh Fitzgibbon coming off four matches in five weeks.
Tim O’Mahony was unavailable through illness and while Waterford weren’t rated coming in, they’d hurled with the county’s now trademark intensity and structure in challenge games against Kilkenny and Tipp. The Cork selectors had watched them on those occasions and forewarned the players, yet they couldn’t shake off their complacency.
Credit where it’s due to Fitzgibbon, Coleman and Kingston, without ripping it up they came up with the goods, in the second half especially. Fitzgibbon lobbed over 0-3 from play and was pulled back for a converted free, Kingston curled over two points and was twice fouled, while Coleman bombed over a long-range effort on 50 minutes to nudge Cork one ahead.
Robbie O'Flynn burned down the line and hit two gems as well. And even if Deccie Dalton didn't score from play, some of his frees into the teeth of the wind were curled over in style.
The Déise were seen off though on the basis of greater work-rate from the Cork attack after the break, forcing their opponents into errors leading to points, the increased dominance of wing-backs Eoghan Murphy and Billy Hennessy, and the impact of subs Conor Cahalane and Daire Connery.
Murphy, a Rearden’s Club All-Star for his displays with Sars, and Hennessy, who shone in last year’s semi-final down in Waterford but was injured for the final, got a grip on long deliveries and thundered out with loose ball too. It was particularly satisfying for Hennessy no doubt, as he was caught in possession for Waterford’s first-half goal. Though Fitzgibbon was the TG4 Man of the Match, the number seven was my choice.
Corner-forwards Jack O’Connor and Liam Healy were really dangerous. They only nabbed 0-2 each but could have run riot with a better supply.
Everyone knows Connery is a class act after his exploits for the U17s and minors last summer. He’d been motoring along in challenge matches too, torching the Imokilly seniors two weeks back, but as he’s only 18 next month was held in reserve. Can Cork afford to do that against Limerick though?
On his introduction, Cahalane brought the type of abrasive quality to midfield his brother Damien offers the seniors. He got a classy point and could have had another but opted to go for goal from a tricky angle. More importantly, he just put himself about, broke up the play.
It’s been some couple of weeks for the Cahalane clan, as Jack, who is U17 again next year, was corner-forward for the minors against Limerick and Waterford. It’s just a pity Jack won’t get to feature in a Munster final like Conor and Damien.
The clash on Wednesday week won’t be straightforward, even if the Rebels are at home again to Limerick or Tipp. The Cork seniors will be involved in a provincial decider four days earlier against Clare. What will Kingston and co have left in the tank for the U21s by then?
Cork haven’t lifted the Munster title since 2007, and have only won two of the past 20… a shocking record. Even if they’re beaten they’ll be into the All-Ireland semi against the Leinster champions, either Galway or Wexford, but that wouldn’t be the same.
As coach Johnny Dwyer said in the build-up, there is “ferocious talent” in the group but preparation is obviously affected by the volume of U21s on John Meyler’s panel. They might make a couple of changes for the final, like switching Coleman from centre-back to the wing. Minor graduate Brian Turnbull, who is finishing his Leaving Cert, could be added to the bench.
What they definitely need though is to hurl with intent from throw-in. Without a Munster triumph since 2007 and an All-Ireland since '98, Cork hurling needs this crop to maximise their potential.