CORK survived in the All-Ireland hurling championship last Saturday, with a 3-19 to 1-23 triumph over Clare at the Gaelic Grounds, but only just.
It took some late heroics from Patrick Collins and Robert Downey to get Cork over the line, and the triumph was far from perfect, but anytime you come out the right side of a proper kill or be killed championship tie then there are going to be plenty of positives.
Perhaps the biggest one was the manner in which a number of Cork’s youngsters grabbed ownership of the team with the manner of their displays.
Every player needs a day when they stop being the up-and-coming new guy on the team and start being an integral part of it.
After Saturday Collins is no longer living in the shadow cast by the retired Anthony Nash, and in front of him Downey put in a commanding performance at full-back that hopefully suggests that he can fill this role going forward.
Ger Millerick was playing in only his second championship game but you would not have thought it given the composure the Fr. O’Neill’s man brought to proceedings.
Further up the pitch, you had the contributions of Shane Barrett and Alan Connolly off the bench, hitting 1-1 and 0-1 respectively on their introductions, while Jack O’Connor frightened the life out of defenders with his blistering pace.
However, possibly the biggest takeaway from the win is that Cork continue to be outpointed in every game.
This newly developed appetite for goals is certainly welcome but such an approach is surely unsustainable. Three or four goals are not always going to be guaranteed, and when they dry up this Cork team are going to struggle.
Clare scored 23 points to Cork’s 19 on Saturday and in the Munster semi-final, Limerick outpointed Cork when winning by 2-22 to 1-17.
The league was similar, with only hapless Westmeath outpointed 7-27 to 0-15 at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in May.
Cork beat Waterford and drew with Tipp, but were outpointed in both games, which ended 5-22 to 1-27 and 2-16 to 0-22 respectively, while they lost their last two games against Limerick and Galway by 0-33 to 2-19 and 2-23 to 3-25.
Discounting Westmeath that is now six games in a row this year against top opposition that Cork have conceded more white flags than their opposition. It can come as no great surprise to learn that they have won only two of these six ties.
The reason for this is simply that the team balance is not right yet, and one of the consequences of this imbalance is that Cork are not getting the most out of either Mark Coleman or Darragh Fitzgibbon.
The Coleman at centre-back experiment rages on, and while having the Blarney man at six makes a lot of sense considering how Cork want to play through the lines, you cannot help thinking that the team is actually putting the shackles on one of their best stick men, as the discipline required to anchor a defence means the creativity Coleman offers going forward is lost.
Likewise, we keep waiting for Fitzgibbon to really impose himself on the championship, but the talented Charleville midfielder seems to be performing in fits and starts, despite a clearly high work-rate.
That may be the issue there, as too much is being asked of him to protect the Cork rearguard and to make the barnstorming runs forward down the other end. Being positioned at centre-forward to spearhead the Cork attack could really help him in this regard, while also helping to solve the perennial issue that is Cork’s half forward line.
The freeing up of Coleman and Fitzgibbon would almost certainly improve Cork’s attacking fortunes, but it comes with a huge problem, and potential cost, further back. Who replaces them at six and eight?
If the Cork management could solve that problem in the next few weeks then Cork could emerge as dark horses in this year’s championship.
The return to the squad of Bill Cooper and Colm Spillane might offer solutions, while a punt might also be taken on talented youngsters from the recent All-Ireland U20 triumph.
In reality, it is highly unlikely that the Cork management are going to twist at this late stage of the high stakes game that is the All-Ireland hurling championship, but if we are honest sticking now is likely to lead to only one outcome against the other high rollers left in the competition.
Cork need to spring a surprise or two if they are to end the 16-year long wait for senior All-Ireland glory. They have been waiting since 2018 to get back to the All-Ireland semi-final.
Next weekend is a great chance to achieve this, and if they manage this then they will have done it somewhat under the radar, which would set them up perfectly for a potential ambush.