WITH stalwarts Eoin Cadogan, Colm Spillane, and Bill Cooper announcing their retirements from inter-county duty, the Cork hurling panel is about to lose a lot of experience in 2022, but that does not mean that they have to struggle either.
One of the big takeaways from the 2021 championship was that a rebuild was required down the spine of the Cork team.
The Cork management are likely to have strong ideas already as to how they are going to achieve this.
There are two ways: The first is to utilise existing members of the panel, while the second would be to bring in new blood.
They could double down on what was attempted last year, by deploying Robert Downey and Mark Coleman as the defensive spine, but if Cork are to progress, then this would be retrograde. Both Downey and Coleman have huge parts to play in the future of Cork hurling, just not in the numbers three and six jerseys.
Downey was magnificent for Glen Rovers in the county championship, but it was in the half-back line that he had the most influence. Coleman always plays in a more advanced role for Blarney than he does for the Rebels, and this is where Cork can get the most out of him.
The biggest and boldest calls to fill the full-back and centre-back slots would be to bring in the dual All-Ireland U20-winning pair of Daire O’Leary and Ciarán Joyce and to back them.
Both have the hurling and physical presence required to fill the roles, but they will also only be 20 years of age come next year’s championship.
That is a huge ask of such young hurlers, and some would even say it might be unfair, but if they are the best players to fill the spots then this is what Cork must do.
If this decision is taken, then the management must ensure that the starting team also possesses other players who can fill these positions in case of emergencies.
If either of them is having a tough day at the office, then there should be a quick switch to move the young player out of the fire.
For instance, if O’Leary were full back and Downey were at left wing-back, a quick-and-simple switch would see both players move to positions they are familiar with.
Another example would be to play Tommy O’Connell in a holding midfield role. The Midleton man has had a great club championship as a centre-back, so would be able to switch there.
So, in a nutshell, it should be possible to back youth next year, while also ensuring that an established Plan B is on the field and ready to go. This would take the pressure off of the younger players.
The Cork hurlers are probably sick to the back teeth of hearing the word ‘work-rate’. It is a throwaway that captures a whole bunch of areas where Cork are considered deficient.
Cork hurling teams are not lazy. They do work as hard as everyone else, but the point is that other characteristics, such as the ability to win balls in rucks, tackling, hooking, and so on, are low down on the list of strengths of a lot of the players that Cork continuously select.
Therefore, they regularly fall short when the analysts publish this type of data.
The two U20 sides that won All-Ireland’s in 2021 did not have this issue, and if you watch back both finals, it is very noticeable how much dirty ball got hoovered up by the likes of Brian Roche, Darragh Flynn, and Sam Quirke.
None of these players are 6' 4", but to have these strengths in your game you do not need to be.
Cork really need to be selecting more of these types of players in the middle eight going forward, rather than out-and-out stick men.
And, it is not like the above three can’t hurl!
This brings us to the annual ball-winner-up-front conversation.
Cork are leaning too heavily on Seamus Harnedy and Robbie O’Flynn in this respect, hence why they focus so much on going through the lines.
All-Ireland champions Limerick play a perfect blend of going short when it is on but have the ability to go long when they have to. This is what Cork has to aspire to.
Cork will always have a plentiful supply of scoring forwards, but it does seem that a lot of them are a bit samey.
Indeed, you could argue that the likes of Shane Kingston, Shane Barrett, Alan Connolly, and possibly Conor Lehane are all best suited as impact players off the bench at this level, but there is no way Kingston can bench them all.
Declan Dalton has had his injury issues in the past year, and if back to full health he should certainly help provide a more direct outlet. There are plenty of other options as well.
Sean Twomey and Colin O’Brien will have their fans after their contributions to the first U20 All-Ireland win, while a great deal of interest will be given to whether St Finbarr’s Brian Hayes chooses hurling or football going forward. Shane O’Regan would also offer something different to the other forwards on the panel.
The All-Ireland final loss hurt on Leeside, but this team can regenerate itself very quickly.
With next year’s Munster championship looking like the proverbial feeding frenzy, this regen’ will have to be a quick one.