Cork v Waterford: Rebels must go all out in the league final

Championship is looming but there's no point in holding anything back with a national title on the line, argues Éamonn Murphy
Cork v Waterford: Rebels must go all out in the league final

Cork's Mark Coleman is tackled by Kilkenny's Mikey Carey during the Allianz NHL semi-final at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

NOW Cork are in the league final, they could really do with winning it.

Kieran Kingston and his selectors would have been able to park up a loss against Kilkenny last weekend, notwithstanding the pressure that came with being at home, on the basis it gave them a three-week run into championship. ‘It’s only the league’ and all that.

The gap to the joust with Limerick on Easter Sunday is set at two weeks, so Cork need to get their hands on the league title for the first time in 24 years. 

What a lift it would give the squad and their supporters, who created a terrific atmosphere at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. And in the modern era, league success is intrinsically linked to All-Ireland glory.

To put it in context, starters Ciarán Joyce, Alan Connolly, Shane Barrett and Daire O’Leary, as well as sub Sam Quirke, weren’t even born when current selector Diarmuid O’Sullivan last lifted the league crown for Cork in 1998.

They’ve been in four finals across that lengthy period, losing to Kilkenny twice, in 2002 and 2012, Galway in 2010 and Waterford three years later.

In 2010, under Denis Walsh, Cork were able to put a poor showing against the Tribe behind before pulling off a major upset against Tipp, on a day Aisake Ó hAilpín did wreck. Two years later, in Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s first season back at the helm, Cork should have beaten Tipperary in the Páirc and came through the backdoor to make the All-Ireland semi-final.

In 2002, the season that culminated in the first strike, and 2015 when Cork lost to the Déise in both the league final and Munster Championship opener before collapsing against Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final, spring disappointment derailed summer ambitions.

The schedule this season, a condensed league campaign running into the provincial round-robin series, back after a two-year gap, tests the limits of every squad. Cork are in a stronger position than many counties in that regard, drawing from those back-to-back All-Ireland U20 winning panels.

Joyce and Barrett are bankers to start next month and while Daire O’Leary struggled a bit last Saturday, he picked up an early knock and is firmly in the county’s best eight backs after shackling Seamus Flanagan and Conor Whelan in the league. Alan Connolly didn’t feature in the opening games because of injury and struggled to get on the ball against Galway but pilfered 1-1 up in Wexford and was electric in the Kilkenny win.

Alan Connolly of Cork in action against Conor Delaney of Kilkenny last weekend. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Alan Connolly of Cork in action against Conor Delaney of Kilkenny last weekend. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

You couldn’t argue with TG4 opting for Darragh Fitzgibbon as the official MVP against the Cats, given he hurled well in the opening exchanges when Brian Cody’s charges were on top and his 1-1 coming down the stretch was decisive.

Joyce, Mark Coleman, Connolly, and Conor Lehane were terrific too though. Lehane didn’t score in the opening 35 minutes but his work-rate and team-play stood out.

The Midleton maestro picked off three brilliant points from play then in the second half and took over free-taking duties when Patrick Horgan and Shane Kingston were both replaced. Previously he could be guilty of fading out of games, but he got better and better on Saturday night.

Kingston was ruthless when he axed him but he’s certainly returned a better player. The confidence gained by captaining Midleton to a county is a factor and even when they were knocked out of the Munster club series by Kilmallock, Lehane’s newfound blend of intensity and skill was notable.

He’s carried that attitude into 2022 and it bodes well for championship. The defence is pretty settled while Ger Millerick will partner Fitzgibbon at midfield but there are still places up for grabs in attack.

No doubt Horgan and Kingston were disappointed to come off last weekend but impact subs up front will be critical to getting out of the Munster championship, let alone contesting for an All-Ireland.

Seamus Harnedy and Jack O'Connor both contributed hugely in the latter stages last weekend, despite not actually scoring.

LEAGUE SCORERS:

Patrick Horgan 1-31 (0-24 f, 0-1 65);

Shane Kingston 4-21 (0-14 f, 0-1 65);

Conor Lehane 1-17 (0-6 f);

Darragh Fitzgibbon 2-12;

Mark Coleman 0-13 (0-8 f);

Alan Connolly 1-5;

Robbie O'Flynn, Shane Barrett 0-7;

Tim O’Mahony 1-4;

Seamus Harnedy 0-6;

Ciarán Joyce 0-6 (0-1 65);

Luke Meade 1-2;

Rob Downey 0-3

Jack O'Connor, Mark Keane 0-2;

Ger Millerick, Conor Cahalane, Colin O’Brien, Sam Quirke, Alan Cadogan, Padraig Power 0-1.

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