Cork v Waterford: Conor Lehane's resurgence has been huge for the Rebels

Christy O'Connor previews the hurling league final and the key areas that will decide who departs Thurles with the trophy
Cork v Waterford: Conor Lehane's resurgence has been huge for the Rebels

Cork’s Conor Lehane and Darragh Fitzgibbon celebrate at the end of the game. Picture: INPHO/Ken Sutton

JUST six weeks after Waterford were beaten by Limerick in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final, Liam Cahill was already looking forward to 2022 with serious intent.

“This year is a big, big year for these players, it’s a big year for me and the management team,” Cahill told WLR’s Lár Na Páirce show last September.

“Ultimately, there’ll be no stone left unturned to make sure that silverware is delivered this year of some sort.”

The All-Ireland is the real target, but as Waterford seek to win their first piece of silverware under Cahill in tomorrow’s league final, it is fitting that they’re meeting a team almost in their image.

QUEST

There are so many parallels between Cork and Waterford, not just in make-up, youth, talent, and pace but also in that quest to end a famine and win an All-Ireland, with both teams more than capable of doing so.

The All-Ireland is all that matters to Cork, but securing any form of silverware at this stage — especially a national title that Cork haven’t won in 24 years — is something Cork now need to do.

“I think a win is vital for Cork,” said Alan Browne on Wednesday.

“If they were to lose it would put another dent in the confidence of not so much the younger players but maybe the older players who have been beaten in national finals over the last while.”

Patrick Horgan has lost four national finals while Seamus Harnedy and Conor Lehane have lost three, with a host more of the current group having lost two national finals.

Yet the younger brigade have endured just as much heartbreak, with a number of the squad having lost All-Ireland minor, U20, and U21 finals along with last year’s senior final. Injury may have ruled him out of last year’s final but Ger Mellerick has lost four All-Ireland finals in the last five seasons.

It’s easy to forget too that a lot of these Waterford players have lost two All-Ireland senior finals and three All-Ireland semi-finals in the last six seasons.

The championship starting in two weeks has been an overbearing presence throughout this campaign for every team, but Cork and Waterford’s desire to win a national title should guarantee an enthralling contest with no holding back.

Both teams have been in excellent form, especially in an attacking sense. Both sides have an explosive running game with the potential to score lots of goals.

Waterford may have filled their boots against Laois but they are the highest goalscoring team in this league by a distance with 18 green flags raised. Prior to last Sunday, Wexford had only conceded four goals in five games but Waterford hit them for five. It could have been eight or nine.

Cork have only conceded seven goals in six games. Their defence has tightened up, but their reduced numbers have also been counter-balanced by an increased volume of possession. 

Those figures have been bumped up by Cork’s stamina levels and ability to sustain their powerful running game throughout the 70 plus minutes, particularly in the fourth quarter.

Cork have also been turning over the ball far less often than they did last year, which has been really evident as the league has progressed. Against Clare and Limerick, Limerick had averaged 34 turnovers per match. Yet against Galway and Kilkenny, that average dropped to 22.

A lot of Cork’s difficulties early in the semi-final against Kilkenny came from turnovers, with Kilkenny mining three points from that source. Yet Cork really tightened up on that area after the first quarter and they only turned over the ball on 21 occasions in total.

The power and precision of Cork’s running game has also contributed to those numbers. Kilkenny were incensed with the free count of 13-2 in the first half last weekend but it’s hard to deal with Cork’s running speed without committing fouls.

Kilkenny’s Eoin Murphy saves at the feet of Cork’s Patrick Horgan. Picture: INPHO/Ken Sutton
Kilkenny’s Eoin Murphy saves at the feet of Cork’s Patrick Horgan. Picture: INPHO/Ken Sutton

The volume of runs Cork made last weekend also contributed to the low possession numbers of Shane Kingston (4) and Patrick Horgan (6). Kingston didn’t have the ball in his hand until the 38th minute when he was forced to come back inside his own half to pick up a loosely hit Kilkenny sideline cut.

Horgan had just won a free and had scored a point with his two previous possessions before being hauled off, but Cork now have the luxury of being able to do so — something they wouldn’t have risked with Horgan in the past — because of the strength of their bench, especially their forward options.

The emergence of Ciaran Joyce has been the real boon of this league for Cork but the rejuvenation and reinvigoration of Conor Lehane isn’t far behind it.

Lehane’s excellent form and work-rate has also given management even greater licence with their options because they may not have seen Lehane as a starter when they decided to bring him back.

Conor Cahalane was a starter last year but management have clearly decided to use him as a weapon off the bench late on. Jack O’Connor was in an All-Star position before last year’s All-Ireland final, but he has been used as an impact sub too this spring.

Cork are in a great position but they’ll need to be when going up against a team with the attacking class and pace and goal-threat of Waterford. The suspension of Austin Gleeson though does dilute that threat of green flags slightly.

And Cork will look to take advantage of Gleeson’s loss in a game where every small margin will add up in both teams’ manic pursuit for silverware.

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