Expert analyst Christy O'Connor breaks down the stats and key moments from Cork's win over Waterford...
THE first half of Sunday’s match was brilliant and electric but it reached its highest pitch in a breathless burst of action just before the break.
In the 33rd minute, Stephen O’Keeffe made a brilliant save from Alan Cadogan.
Within a minute, Cork engineered another goal chance. Seamus Harnedy got inside the Waterford cover but O’Keeffe made an even better stop and Waterford moved the ball smartly down the field for Kevin Moran to equalise.
The sides went in level at the break. There was nothing between the teams but that four-point swing already felt like it could be a defining moment in such a tight game.
It wasn’t. Cork took up where they left off after the break. Cork had pushed ahead by three points by the 40th minute.
When they were rocked by a Maurice Shanahan goal shortly afterwards, Seamus Harnedy won the puckout and was fouled for a converted free. A minute later, Bill Cooper put in a big hit on Kevin Moran to force a turnover, which resulted in a Conor Lehane point. Cadogan then pushed Cork ahead by three.
The trend had been firmly set. Cork were in control and they never relinquished that control.
Cork were sharper, slicker, more polished, and just better. Waterford were bound to be rusty after an 11-week lay-off but they never fluidly worked themselves into the game.
They played better in the first half than they did after the break, when they only managed six scores. Jamie Barron, who made 20 plays, was Waterford’s best player but he did most of his best hurling in the second half when so many of his team-mates were struggling.
Pauric Mahony hit four points from play but he tired late on and ended with four wides, two from placed balls, something he rarely does. The biggest disappointment for Waterford though, was Austin Gleeson, who was taken off, having made just seven plays. He started at corner-forward before then reverting into an auxiliary centre-back role but Gleeson just drifted for most of the afternoon.
The game was more defined by match-ups by any real tactical template but Cork were smart in how they used possession. They won 14 of the 26 long balls played into their attack.
They only drove one ball down Tadgh de Burca’s throat when he was on his own. He didn’t really play as a sweeper, mainly because d Burca’s hands were full with trying to contain Lehane.
Apart from Mark Coleman, Cork’s younger players struggled but their main leaders really stepped up; Anthony Nash, Mark Ellis, Patrick Horgan, Conor Lehane and Seamus Harnedy.
Lehane scored three points, won a free and had an assist but Harnedy really led the charge after the break. From 15 plays overall, Harnedy scored two points, won two frees and had two assists.
Leadership was a key word for Cork. Two minutes before the players emerged from the dressing room after half-time, the Cork management were back on the sideline.
They had done something similar before the start of the Tipperary match. They are clearly trusting the players more now and the group are showing that faith management have placed in them.
Management deserve huge credit. With Lehane’s ankle injury, they made a decision early in the week to put Horgan on the frees.
Horgan’s accuracy was on the money, nailing eight placed balls from nine attempts.
Everything about Cork was composed and smart.
They conserved a lot of energy in their dialed down warm-up, while their fitness levels really showed on such a hot day. Waterford won the puckout stat 32-30 but Waterford only really got a grip on puck-outs in the last 20 minutes.
Nash’s handling and precision striking was brilliant; Waterford only won 10 Cork puck-outs but six of those came in the last 20 minutes.
Cork set the tone from the first ball. They forced three big turnovers in the opening three minutes.
Mark Coleman looked like an experienced veteran in that opening half, making more plays than anyone else (12), two of which were scoring assists. Overall, Coleman made 22 plays and finished with four scoring assists.
Even though Cork struggled to get Cadogan into the match (he didn’t have his first possession until the 33rd minute), while Shane Kingston had two wides from four first half plays, Cork still always looked like the more threatening team.
They didn’t score a goal but on another day, they could have raised four green flags. Waterford had one decent goal chance after half-time, when Stephen Bennett hit the side-netting, while they dropped four shots short, but there was never any fluency, spark or edge to their game.
They struggled to adapt to a more orthodox defensive formation.
There were times when they seemed more concerned with match-ups and keeping their shape but they never really attacked the play like Cork did all afternoon.
Lehane’s ankle injury, which he strained late on, does present Cork with a concern over his fitness for the Munster final but he still has three weeks to get right. Either way, Cork will go into that match full of confidence against Clare, especially having played two championship matches in Thurles to get there.
The Cork bandwagon is clearly rolling again too because the crowd have returned in numbers. Those numbers will swell even more from now on because there is a real sense that this is a team going somewhere.
Before Sunday, Cork were deemed to be at least a year away from being All-Ireland contenders. That notion can be dismissed.
Because they are contenders now.