Rebels are on the road to a better place

Rebels are on the road to a better place

Tipperary’s Michael Breen and Mark Coleman of Cork at full pace in Thurles last Sunday. Picture: INPHO/Cathal Noonan

The Christy O'Connor GAA column

THE weekend before the Cork-Tipperary match, the Cork squad travelled to Clonakilty for a training weekend. The management weren’t sure afterwards if they would beat Tipperary but they were convinced that they would perform.

They got a huge amount of work done over the two days. The mood was great. Players were in serious form. The vibe was really positive but the sole focus was on performance, and on trying to perform to the level which the players had shown they were capable of.

Cork were so focused on getting a performance that the result was nearly an irrelevance beforehand. “I’ll be honest, we came up here and the result was at the back of our minds,” said Damien Cahalane afterwards. “All we were looking to do was get fellas to go out, work hard and give a good account of ourselves. It was good enough.” 

Cork were exceptional. They performed to such an extremely high level that nobody could have expected it. It’s almost unheard of that five young starting debutantes would play as well as they did, and for a sixth to come off the bench and score a goal with his first touch.

A section of the 30,103 supporters at the game celebrate near the end. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
A section of the 30,103 supporters at the game celebrate near the end. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Those young players have long been flagged as the bright future of Cork hurling but their influence clearly extends beyond their class and brilliance. They have that innate Cork confidence and swagger. 

And the strong mentality that goes hand in hand with those traits. In his ‘Sunday Game’ man-of-the-match acceptance speech afterwards, Conor Lehane acknowledged that mental strength of those young players as much as their brilliance.

The young players have been massive because they have done more than just show the way forward for the older crew. They have offered a glimpse of what the future may hold for all of them, together, but they have also put serious heat on those older players. Management are not afraid to invest in youth. 

Every team needs a batch of seasoned and experienced players but those same players know now, and especially with so much talent coming, that management will move on without them if they don’t step up. They had to. And they did.

Kieran Kingston and his backroom team deserve huge credit for how they managed that situation. Big players were left on the bench during the league. Taking the frees off Patrick Horgan let him know that he needed to develop his overall game. Lehane has also responded to the responsibility of that free-taking duty.

Conor Lehane celebrates a score. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Conor Lehane celebrates a score. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Lehane has always been a brilliant player but he looks fitter now than he has ever been. Moving him to centre-forward was another smart move. When he played on the wing, he often had a tendency to run down the line and shoot from almost impossible angles. At number 11, Lehane can use his searing pace to greater effect, he has more licence to move left and right, and is likely to get into better scoring positions if he can get away from his man.

Technically, Coleman has also helped to sharpen Cork’s attack with the cutting edge of his deliveries, especially cross-field ball. Coleman has phenomenal range from deep. His exceptional ability to switch the play enables Coleman to take the centre-back out of the equation from anywhere past his own 45-metre line. The two assists Coleman had for points from Seamus Harnedy and Lehane were two of the outstanding plays of the game.

Darragh Fitzgibbon was also an impressive link-man against Tipperary. His deployment as a midfielder only came about in the last couple of weeks. He was being groomed as a forward but his form was so brilliant in training that management revaluated Fitzgibbon’s role, especially after he excelled in an in-house game in Clonakility. 

With Daniel Kearney out injured, Cork had other more experienced options for midfield, especially Lorcán McLoughlin, but going with Fitzgibbon reaffirmed management’s philosophy. Fitzgibbon is hopefully going to play for Cork for a decade so they decided to throw him into the deeper sooner rather than later.

The young players have lifted the mood but the whole environment is more positive now too than it was last season. Part of that pressure last summer stemmed from a poor league campaign and the increased insecurity the squad felt from trying to play a sweeper system they weren’t comfortable with. 

Gary Keegan’s influence has been clearly felt but Pat Ryan’s coaching has been one of the most understated and underrated factors of Cork’s development and improvement.

Cork will take huge confidence and belief from last Sunday but they will be realistic too. The match was wide open. It didn’t have the intensity or hard-hitting ferocity that Cork will be faced with in three weeks time, and later on in the summer. There were only 12 frees awarded last weekend. Only three yellow cards were doled out.

Waterford will give those Cork younger players a far more realistic and sterner introduction to the Munster championship in three weeks than what Tipperary presented them with.

Cork captain Stephen McDonnell leads his team in the parade before the victory over Tipp at Semple Stadium. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Cork captain Stephen McDonnell leads his team in the parade before the victory over Tipp at Semple Stadium. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Tipperary looked like a team that gave zero thought to Cork, and what they were capable of. It was almost an attitude of ‘Let’s go out and just hurl away, and rack up scores for fun.’ They did but it wasn’t enough. And Waterford and Derek McGrath will forensically plan now for what they saw from Cork last Sunday.

Cork are definitely on the road back but the big test now is to find a level of consistency that Cork hurling haven’t had in years. They passed a big test on Sunday. But there is a bigger one coming down the tracks in Thurles on June 18.

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