Conor Lehane deserves his recall but what role can he now play for the Cork hurlers?

Christy O'Connor: 'The inter-county game has become such a theatre of combat now that it’s becoming harder for magicians to perform their tricks.'
Conor Lehane deserves his recall but what role can he now play for the Cork hurlers?

Conor Lehane, Cork, in action against Stephen Daniels, Waterford, in his Cork league debut in 2012 at Páirc Uí Rinn. Picture: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE

AFTER 17 minutes of Cork’s opening league game against Waterford in Páirc Uí Rinn in 2012, Pa Cronin drilled a ball into Conor Lehane, who was about 40m out from the Waterford goal.

Lehane stumbled as the ball was in mid-flight and was on his knees, with Stephen Daniels almost on his back, by the time it reached him. Lehane had no right to win the ball but he stunned it on his stick before getting up and driving it over the bar.

It was the signature score of a signature performance that yielded seven brilliant points from play. Lehane had already made his championship debut in Cork’s qualifier defeat to Galway in 2011, but that February night in 2012 was the first time the wider hurling public saw Lehane in action. And they immediately knew what all the fuss was about.

Everything pointed towards a brilliant career. In 2013, Lehane was player-of-the-tournament in the Fitzgibbon Cup after driving UCC to the title; by the end of that season, he was an All-Star nominee after being a key player in Cork’s run to the All-Ireland final.

Some of his displays that summer were vintage Lehane, especially the first half of the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final and the second half of the drawn All-Ireland final. 

Conor Lehane racing away from Clare's Patrick O'Connor to score his goal during the All-Ireland final at Croke Park. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Conor Lehane racing away from Clare's Patrick O'Connor to score his goal during the All-Ireland final at Croke Park. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

When Cork defeated Limerick in the 2014 Munster final, Lehane scored 0-5 from play, four of which came in a devastating first-half performance.

Lehane struggled to produce sustained 70-minute performances but he was capable of incredible bursts of brilliance. 

The difficulty though was trying to sustain an overall level of performance that the Cork public routinely expected off Lehane. He hit 1-12 from play in the 2015 championship but 1-5 of that came in a devastating first-half blitz against Wexford.

Lehane’s form was patchy in 2016 but he could still inflict damage from limited possession – he scored 0-3 from play in Cork’s two qualifiers that summer against Dublin and Wexford.

PEAK

In 2017 though, Lehane finally looked to be taking his game to the next level. In Cork’s Munster quarter-final win that May against Tipperary, Lehane had 25 possessions, scoring five points from play, while also securing five puck-outs. After being handed the free-taking duties, Lehane ended the match with 0-10.

His incredible display in the Munster semi-final against Waterford, when he scored 0-4 from play, was embellished by an outrageous score in the first half. When a long delivery from Mark Coleman was dropping between Lehane and a Waterford defender, Lehane had to almost dive backwards to adjust his feet and body shape to secure possession.

As he was doing so, his brain computed that he needed to switch hands. After snaffling the sliotar in his right hand, Lehane put the ball back on the hurley, soloed 20 yards before nailing it from the sideline.

Cork’s Conor Lehane scores a point from Austin Gleeson of Waterford in 2017 at Semple Stadium. Picture: INPHO/Tommy Dickson
Cork’s Conor Lehane scores a point from Austin Gleeson of Waterford in 2017 at Semple Stadium. Picture: INPHO/Tommy Dickson

Lehane’s movement on the Cork puck-out that afternoon bamboozled Waterford but that was his last outstanding performance for Cork in championship. In Cork’s remaining two championship games in that 2017 season, Lehane scored a combined 0-3.

He bagged 3-14 from play in the 2018 championship, with two superb goals against Clare and Limerick (All-Ireland semi-final). Lehane hit three scores or more from play in four of Cork’s six games that summer but the Cork public still always demanded more off Lehane.

Lehane carried that burden well from a young age but that constant level of expectation seemed to drain his confidence. Yet he still retained that magical streak and ability to make the ball talk. 

He scored an acrobatic point in the early stages against Limerick in the 2019 championship but injured himself in the process and spent most of that summer trying to get back on the team. Lehane started the All-Ireland quarter-final against Kilkenny but was the first player taken off.

Against Waterford in Cork’s opening championship game last year, Lehane scored two early points from two shots and was involved in three other scores. He had eight possessions in total and was hauled off with 16 minutes remaining. Lehane only played a handful of minutes as a sub in Cork’s remaining two matches and was cut from the squad by management at the end of the season.

DESERVED

After a club season though, when Lehane was the best forward in the Cork senior championship, scoring 0-55, 22 from play, Kieran Kingston recalled Lehane to the squad last week.

Lehane is fully deserving of the recall but he still faces the same challenges that led to his struggles, and ultimately saw him dropped last year. Nobody disputes Lehane's genius, but the inter-county game has become such a theatre of combat now that it’s becoming harder for magicians to perform their tricks.

Conor Lehane of Cork passes the sliotar to a teammate over the head of Shane McNulty of Waterford. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Conor Lehane of Cork passes the sliotar to a teammate over the head of Shane McNulty of Waterford. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Lehane’s best position is centre-forward because he needs to be in the game. It’s unknown if the Cork management would envisage a role for him there now, but management’s biggest conundrum will be in trying to strike that correct balance with Lehane and a raft of other forwards with so many of the same traits.

Lehane showed great leadership in the second half against Kilmallock last week but on three occasions he turned back hoping to execute a shot or pass and was met with force by another covering player. 

He’d probably have got away with that manoeuvre in the Cork championship but the inter-county game, especially in Limerick’s domain, is a whole different sphere now.

Just as Cork discovered in August, trying to survive and prosper in that environment will be a huge test for Lehane. Yet he is still fully deserving of the opportunity.

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