If Lehane can hit his brilliant best in Croke Park, Cork will be hard to stop

If Lehane can hit his brilliant best in Croke Park, Cork will be hard to stop
Conor Lehane after hitting the net against Clare. Picture: INPHO/Oisin Keniry

GALWAY hurlers lay down another serious marker in the manner of their latest Leinster final success over Kilkenny.

The Tribesmen are undoubtedly the team to beat but the championship has also gone relatively smoothly from a Cork perspective.

Crucially, the emerging young brigade of Sean Donoghue, Mark Coleman, Darragh Fitzgibbon and Shane Kingston have all shown flashes of brilliance already in the championship and the open spaces of Croke Park look ideal for this very pacey quartet.

Captain Seamus Harnedy is leading from the front while the stick work of Patrick Horgan has been the highlight of the summer. But if the Rebels are going to go the distance Conor Lehane will need to take off in Croke Park which he is more than capable of doing.

Lehane is among the most gifted hurlers in the country although his form has been patchy in the round robin games.

But we are now at the business end of the campaign and Corks marquee forward can play a crucial role when it matters most.

Conor Lehane and Daniel Kearney celebrate the Munster title. Picture: INPHO/Morgan Treacy
Conor Lehane and Daniel Kearney celebrate the Munster title. Picture: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

The Midleton star is always targeted by opposing defences and before the throw-in of the opening game against Clare, Lehane was the victim of foul play which went unpunished and unreported.

It was fascinating to hear former Waterford manager Derek McGrath describe on radio last week how curtailing Lehane was key to their game plan in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final clash.

The Waterford management snuffed out the dual threat of Lehane and Harnedy which went a long way to denying the Rebels victory despite the sending off of Damien Cahalane which ultimately turned the game in favour of the Déise men.

Crucially, the emergence of Darragh Fitzgibbon has given the Cork management an extra option at centre-forward which may free up Lehane for some game time at wing forward.

He has always looked more at home darting along the touchlines. Following the outstanding form of Horgan and Harnedy in Munster opposition defences will have more than Lehane to worry about.

The physicality of Galway, Limerick and Kilkenny is a concern but this Cork team is going places and Lehane at his brilliant best will be required for the final push to ultimate glory.

Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

As Cork hurling continues on an upward curve the opposite can be said of the footballers' fortunes this summer.

While most of the reaction has been fair some of the criticism has been slightly over the top.

When the Cork hurlers lost to Wexford in the qualifiers in 2016 very few would have predicted such an upsurge in their fortunes in such a short space of time.

That defeat was another bitterly disappointing day for Cork GAA as we limped out of another championship with Wexford celebrating a first championship win over Cork since 1956.

As the hurlers prepare for their second consecutive semi-final since that demoralising defeat, perhaps a little perspective is required in assessing another roller coaster week for Cork hurlers and footballers.

A gutsy Munster Senior Hurling final victory over Clare had everyone on a high and the blitzing of a fancied Tipperary team at U21 level delivered a second Munster trophy in four days.

But the week ended with a serious thumping for our footballers from a Tyrone team who are simply playing at a different level. Two heavy defeats from Kerry and Tyrone have left Rebel supporters in a state of despair creating widespread debate throughout the county.

What amazed this observer was the amount of supporters expecting Cork footballers to turn over Tyrone who boast one of the best records in the qualifiers.

As the preparations for inter-county GAA players near professionalism, it was obvious from the league performances of both sides that Tyrone are a top Division 1 side, while Cork are a struggling Division 2 side.

The Conor Counihan era told us that league certainly matters. Before their tame departure last summer Micky Harte’s charges were the team on everyone’s lips as one of the sides capable of breaking Dublin’s dominance.

While I accept that sometimes league form can be a poor guide the optimism of Cork supporters was baffling considering our only decent performances over the last two summers were against Tipperary this season and against Mayo in last year’s qualifiers.

Against Tyrone we were clearly outclassed but the difference in physique was the most striking feature in the opening exchanges of the game last Saturday.

Every time a Cork player brought the ball into contact you just felt that there was going to be a turnover.

Manager Ronan McCarthy should be given time to turn things around while the whole Cork football family needs to find solutions rather than persist with this confidence sapping negativity.

Counties like Kilkenny and Kerry excel at one code, just like Nemo Rangers and Sarsfields at club level.

Intercounty dual players just don’t exist anymore and the switching between codes for Eoin Cadogan and Aidan Walsh hardly benefitted either player over recent seasons.

But the dual player debate needs discussion as Sean Donoghue, Alan Cadogan and Damien Cahalane are three players who are good enough to play on both Cork senior teams.

There are plenty within the Muskerry division who would argue that O’Donoghue is a more talented footballer than hurler while Cadogan and Cahalane regularly star in the County Senior Football Championship.

But as we have seen with the fortunes of the hurlers, things can change very quickly in sport.

Eight of the starting team who played against Wexford on that bleak day just two years ago are now preparing for an All-Ireland Hurling semi-final clash on July 28.

Finally, I expect Clare to get the better of an inconsistent Wexford outfit while a fresher Limerick side can get the better of Kilkenny who have been through a rigorous few weeks.

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