THERE is a quote, ascribed to Manchester United legend Bryan Robson, which sums up one of Cork hurling’s main problems of the recent past.
After an impressive win during the 1980s, before Alex Ferguson turned the Red Devils into a winning machine, the midfielder is said to have opined that “If we played like that every week, we wouldn’t be so inconsistent.”
Obviously, the All-Ireland semi-final defeats in the wake of Munster championship wins of 2017 and 2018 stand out in terms of Cork having peaks and troughs, and even that 2018 provincial title included two wins and two draws in the round-robin stage – with the last victory, against already-eliminated Waterford, harder work than it needed to be.
The 2019 championship was perhaps best summed up by the fact that, after two wins and two losses in Munster, Cork scored 1-40 against Westmeath before exiting with a 3-18 tally against Kilkenny.
Then, last year saw a league of two wins and three defeats followed by a championship of one victory and two losses. In short, there’s a pattern there.
Now, having started last year’s league with a loss to Waterford a win over Tipperary, Cork will hope to avoid the opposite fate following the triumph at home to the Déise last Sunday. Speaking prior to the game, selector Diarmuid O’Sullivan declared himself pleased with how the panel had done since the return to training, with the strong physical showing allowing management to focus on the hurling.
Such positive talk is par for the course at the outset of the season – nobody ever says that they’re on their uppers and training has been awful – but thankfully for Cork, the portents proved accurate.
While the 5-22 to 1-27 win over Waterford was just one game, and Liam Cahill’s team were without the injured Tadhg de Búrca and Pauric Mahony as well as Jamie Barron while goalkeeper Stephen O’Keeffe has retired, it was nevertheless encouraging from Cork.
Not since a 2011 All-Ireland qualifier against Laois had the Rebels scored five goals in a competitive game – or, if you class the Waterford Crystal Cup as competitive, the following January against Kerry in Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s first game back in charge.
We have often lamented here how Cork have gone from being regarded as a goalscoring county to one where chances are only taken as a last resort, and the crafting of goal opportunities on Sunday – and the forcing of turnovers close to the Waterford goal – has to be taken as a massive positive.
Tim O’Mahony stood out at right-half back and was the driver of the first goal, a superb move which also featured the industrious Luke Meade.
Darragh Fitzgibbon gave the kind of rampaging midfield display that bodes well for bigger days and, while Patrick Horgan scored 12 points, Cork managed a healthy 5-10 from elsewhere.
Alan Connolly marked his debut with two of those goals and it will be interesting to see if that earns him a start or if he is being held as an impact player – or a ‘finisher’, in rugby parlance – against tired defences. Given that teams can make seven substitutions now, squad depth is more important than ever.
Tipperary drew with Limerick, though the main takeaway for them was the loss of Bryan O’Meara to an arm injury that will keep him out for six weeks or so. Tipp boss Liam Sheedy isn’t in as much need of discovering what his panel can offer as Kieran Kingston is but they will nevertheless be keen to get points on the board, even allowing for the fact that they, like Cork, have a bye to the Munster semi-finals.
It’s a strange league in that it serves more of a pre-season function than ever, while at the same time being close enough to championship that form must be found.
To that end, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Tipp’s experience was to see them through – but the key for Cork is to produce a performance at or near the level of last week.