Cork got the calls right up to the red card but must build again after disappointing finale

Cork got the calls right up to the red card but must build again after disappointing finale
Cork's Conor Lehane and Shane Fives of Waterford. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

ON his twitter account, Diarmuid O’Sullivan had only posted four tweets during 2017, plus a couple of retweets, but O’Sullivan felt compelled to go on social media on Monday to outline how he felt after Sunday’s disappointing result.

‘Rome wasn’t built in a day,’ he wrote. ‘Incredibly proud of everyone involved in our group this year as no stone was left unturned in our pursuit.’ 

O’Sullivan, and the Cork management, can be extremely proud of Cork’s achievements this season, of how far this team travelled. A Munster title would have deemed out of Cork’s reach at the start of the summer but they won three games in superb style.

New players arrived and prospered. Older and more experienced players matured and took on more responsibility. The sending off of Damien Cahalane apart, the team still has a distance to travel but it has plenty of time to get there. Of the 32 players listed in Sunday’s match programme, 22 were under 26. Eleven were under 22. Anthony Nash is the only player over 30 but he had an excellent season.

All those players will learn from the experience. So will management, who did a brilliant job. They left no stone unturned but, when they forensically study last Sunday, management will realise too that – at this level – you can always do more, you can never do enough planning.

The sending off did change the course of the match but had Cork planned for such an eventuality, especially with a defender? Maybe the management had but the chaos which ensued during the last quarter made it appear like they hadn’t.

Deep down, they will know too that they should have dropped back an extra defender. Those decisions are often difficult to make on the hoof, and in the heat of such a big occasion, but management will also probably accept that those calls can often really only be made when they have already been pre-planned.

As it was, Cork had most of their defensive match-ups spot on; Chris Joyce on Pauric Mahony, with Joyce clearly having a licence to track Mahony down the field, because of Mahony’s ability to score from distance; Stephen McDonnell on Austin Gleeson; Mark Coleman on Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh; Cahalane was clearly to stay full-back and pick up whoever came into his orbit, while Mark Ellis was the centre-back/sweeper.

Cork may have expected ‘Brick’ Walsh to play and drift deeper than he did, which would probably have allowed Coleman to sit back as an extra defender if Walsh did. But he didn’t because Waterford wanted Walsh to pen Coleman back, to force him on the back-foot, and to deny Cork Coleman’s capacity to act as their key launch-pad for crossfield deliveries.

Of Coleman’s 14 possessions, 10 were inside his own 45-metre line. Walsh only had nine possessions but he was very effective in restricting Coleman’s influence on the game. His early goal was crucial while Walsh almost set up another goal, and he finished with two more scoring assists.

After playing so well as the sweeper with the U-21s, and given how Waterford were limiting his influence, switching Coleman with Mark Ellis was another option Cork could have considered. When it was 5 on 5 after the sending off, Ellis had to mark Gleeson, who did big damage.

Cahalane had done fine up to his sending off but Cork really missed him when Maurice Shanahan was introduced. Colm Spillane struggled to physically handle Shanahan, who scored one point, had an assist, and started the move which led to Gleeson’s goal. Gleeson may have always been less inclined to go for the jugular if Cahalane was policing the space in front of the square.

The main frustration though for Cork, was not getting their main men up front on the ball enough, or in enough threatening positions. The eight forwards Cork used had just a combined 38 possessions, an average of just below five each. Conor Lehane had the most with nine but he was hounded and hustled by Conor Gleeson, who did an excellent man-marking job.

Some of them were pot shots but Waterford still had more shots at target in the first half (17-14). Outside of Patrick Horgan, Cork had only managed two more points from play in that half. Cork may have ramped up the scoring intensity in the third quarter but they still couldn’t get away from Waterford, who felt their bench could make a bigger impact when the game loosened up in the third quarter. But when the sending off happened, crevices opened up into canyons.

It was still a serious performance from Waterford. Darragh Fives actually played the sweeper role better than Tadgh de Burca, primarily because he uses the ball better on the front foot. Waterford’s use of possession into their forwards was never better. Harvesting 2-5 from midfield was a huge return but it shouldn’t be a surprise either given the consistent scoring return from Jamie Barron and Kevin Moran throughout this season.

It was a disappointing end to a great year for Cork but this is completely different to the devastation Cork felt after the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final collapse to Tipperary.

This is a new team, a better team. The young players will have learned a huge deal. Cork are still short a few players. It will probably be 18 months before Cork can fill the gaps with talent from this year’s minor team. But those players will make a huge difference in time.

The minors are in an All-Ireland final. The Cork support last Sunday was phenomenal. The fallout from the strikes seems to have been completely washed away now. This has been the best year for Cork hurling since 2005.

Cork hurling is definitely back. And that should temper the huge disappointment from last Sunday.

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