BY any measure, Cork’s start to this year’s Allianz Hurling League Division 1 Group A has been positive.
While the 33-point win over Westmeath at Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Sunday will have been taken with a pinch of salt in some quarters – Cork were 1/100 favourites for the match – it was nevertheless further evidence of a team in good form, playing to a cohesive system.
Galway had also seen off the Lake County comfortably in the opening round, but Westmeath put it up to Waterford the week before last – and the fact that Waterford beat All-Ireland champions Limerick on Sunday further endorses Cork’s victory over Liam Cahill’s side in the first match.
Throw in a draw away to a Tipperary side that are the only other unbeaten team in Group A and it was easy to see why Cork manager Kieran Kingston was satisfied as the team went into the week’s break before the trip to face Limerick.
“Three weeks ago, if you’d said to me that we’d have five points on the board after three games, I’d have accepted it,” he said, “given that we were playing the All-Ireland finalists and then the All-Ireland champions of two years ago. Two games at home, we’d have taken that.
“This has given us the opportunity to, number one, build a bit of momentum but also to look at some of our panel.
The sense is that Cork are much improved from last year. Prior to the league, both Kingston and selector Diarmuid O’Sullivan referenced the lack of preparation time before last year’s championship which meant that Cork couldn’t build consistency. They felt that, with players having come back after the period of inactivity in strong condition, there would be more time to work on hurling and tactics and that the Rebels would benefit from a level playing field compared to the rest of the top counties.
The best way to assess Cork’s performance is by comparison, both internal and external. With the order of fixtures the same as 2020, looking at the first three games from last year is somewhat indicative.
In the spring of last year, Cork started off in rip-roaring fashion with two goals against Waterford in the opening five minutes but lost that game; they then beat Tipp at home and Westmeath away. The cumulative scoring tally was 7-53 – this time, it’s 14-65, even if you need a caveat that 7-27 came against the Leinster side. There were 13 different scorers in the three games at the start of 2020; this time around, there have been 17, all the more impressive given that there has been a not-inconsiderable amount of player-churn in the squad.
While the seven goals against Westmeath might have an asterisk attached, two other counties have had the same chance to run a score but, even so, Cork’s 14 goals are one more than the other five teams combined. The 1-64 conceded is more than Tipp and Galway, but not by much (2-56 and 4-52 respectively).
It shouldn’t need to be said that this is still early in the year and the biggest test of the league will come against Limerick in eight days’ time, even allowing for the All-Ireland and league champions having lost their last two matches, to Galway and Waterford.
This weekend is a break from competitive activity, but for the management it represents vital time to work on shape and patterns of play. As impressive as things have been, there remain areas to improve upon – the lacklustre opening quarter against Westmeath was evidence of that but, by the same token, the upping of intensity after the water-break (or coaching break, as they’ve tended to become) was a sign that the team respond well to instruction.
The curve is pointing upwards, but the team and management will be keenly aware that the graph is still young.