A TALE of two sending offs then, one that resulted in a red card, and the other, that did not.
Waterford may have pulled clear in the final minutes to win Sunday’s All-Ireland hurling semi-final at Croke Park by 4-19 to 0-20, but the last quarter of an hour or so was not representative of what had occurred when the game was 15 v 15.
The Cork gamble of playing with only five defenders after Damien Cahalane’s red card in the 51st minute had seriously backfired with Waterford scoring 2-2 in four minutes to win a game they looked like losing before Cork were reduced to 14 men. And factor in that Austin Gleeson should have walked in the first half for an inexplicable helmet pull on Newcestown’s Luke Meade and Cork can feel aggrieved not to be looking forward to the All-Ireland final on the first Sunday in September.
In saying that, question marks have to be asked as to why the Cork management did not try and re-jig their defence after Cahalane had received his marching orders. While the initial Cork response was great, in that they went two points up, they were playing with fire from there on in, leaving themselves completely exposed at the back, and they duly shipped three soft goals as a result.
Waterford’s first two goals came at the perfect time for them, and obviously the imperfect time from a Cork point of view. In the first half Waterford were really struggling for scores due to the utilisation of their unpopular sweeper system and the Brick Walsh goal gave them a lead that Cork took all of 16 minutes to reel in.
The key to beating Waterford’s sweeper system is to get the lead against them early, and had they not got that opening goal against the run of play then Cork may have built a decent lead early on which would have forced Waterford out of their shell a bit more, allowing more room for Cork’s sharpshooters inside.
Instead the goal allowed them leeway in this respect, making life incredibly difficult for the Cork attack, as the likes of Conor Lehane and Seamus Harnedy were virtually starved of any ball.
Cork had initially responded brilliantly to Cahalane’s red card by taking a two-point lead, and Waterford seemed to be genuinely bottling it at this point with some terrible shot selections occurring out the field, when Chris Joyce’s error in the left corner allowed Austin Gleeson to cross for Jamie Barron to score a sucker punch of a soft goal, and down a man there was to be no way back for the Rebels.
While media coverage have been busy stating that Waterford deserved the victory that is simply a case of hindsight. The fact remains Cork were in the ascendancy when Cahalane walked in the 51st minute, with Darragh Fitzgibbon, in particular, beginning to take a grip on proceedings.
Cork were definitely favourites at that juncture, as finally the game seemed to open up and they looked to move out of third gear.
That is why there will be such regrets down on Leeside in the coming weeks, as this certainly was a lost opportunity, although hopefully some lessons can be learned by players and management alike that will benefit Cork hurling in the years ahead.
For many of the Cork players that were in action on Sunday this was actually their first time ever playing on the hallowed turf of Croke Park. You would imagine that they will be better prepared the next time they endure the experience.
On a positive note the Cork U17s have won an All-Ireland final there already this year and the Cork minors will be playing their own All-Ireland final there in a few weeks, so that makes about 25 young Cork hurlers who have now already been exposed to the Croke Park experience.
Some of these youngsters may well come into the reckoning for next year, as it is plainly obvious that the strength of the Cork panel is a concern, and there are certainly a few spots up for grabs next year.
You would imagine the likes of Billy Hennessy, Declan Dalton and Tim O’Mahony would be brought in after impressing for the U21s this year, and while the likes of Cormac Murphy and Robbie O’Flynn got no game time this year they could kick on again.
No doubt a beacon will be sent up above Ballyhea in the hope that Pa O’Callaghan can finally be enticed into the fold, as he would instantly improve Cork’s attack should he commit, but other than that we would be looking to this year’s minors for reinforcements.
Too much cannot be expected too soon from the 2017 minor crop, but physically Sean O’Leary Hayes and James Keating both look up to senior hurling already, and given another year should be there or thereabouts.
Robert Downey has the height to trouble any defence, and considering Cork’s lack of aerial ability in the loss to Waterford on Sunday he could be drafted into the senior set-up sooner rather than later, while Brian Turnbull must come into the reckoning, as anyone who scores 13 points in an All-Ireland semi-final would have to appear on a fast track to the top.
To lose a semi-final is always disappointing, but we must reflect on where Cork hurling was at the start of the year.
Huge strides have been made in 2017.
Hopefully, the upward trend continues into 2018.