HISTORY often repeats itself, even if that history is often represented in many different forms and personalities.
Three years ago, Cork and Kilkenny met in an All-Ireland U20 semi-final in Portlaoise, which Cork won by six points, scoring just one goal. The following day, Tipperary annihilated Wexford in Nowlan Park, bagging eight goals. When Cork and Tipp met in the All-Ireland final in the Gaelic Grounds a few weeks later, Tipp hit Cork for five goals and won in a rout.
Tipp are the odd team out from that quartet of sides that reached this year’s league semi-finals, but the connections are retained through Liam Cahill and Mikey Bevans, who led Tipp to that U20 title, and who are now guiding the Waterford machine.
En route to that 2019 All-Ireland U20 title, Tipp scored 19 goals in just four matches. En route to Saturday’s league final, Waterford had scored 18 goals in six matches.
A pattern has emerged under Cahill and Bevans since their time with Tipperary underage teams how they have always produced fit, direct, hard-running and hard-working teams with huge spirit and a lust for goals.
Waterford are a more rounded and dangerous team now than they were in the first two years of Cahill’s tenure, but their goal threat has increased in tandem with their evolution. Yet Cahill and Bevans have always believed that they can get at Cork teams with the players they produce, especially through goals. And they did so again on Saturday evening.
Waterford raised four green flags, but it could have been six or seven. Cork did create three goal chances, but while pace has always been one of Cork’s key weapons, they were never able to use that speed to burn off Waterford’s chasing runners like they would have done to other teams. Some of Cork’s main speedsters tried on a handful of occasions but were turned back by the roadblocks in place.
Conversely, Cork’s pace at the back couldn’t halt Waterford’s ability to carve open goalscoring opportunities. On the other hand, Cork still don’t have enough defenders who are committed to getting back the field to avert that danger when it materializes, especially in comparison to how Waterford were consistently able to get bodies back to clog those running channels. Moreover, Cork cough up space and goal chances that other teams don’t.
This was a poor Cork display that reopened a lot of the cracks which appeared in last year’s All-Ireland final. The defence was under pressure all evening. The work-rate wasn’t high enough. Waterford got most of their match-ups right. Cork struggled in too many of theirs.
Waterford pressed Cork high and hard up the field, never allowing two of their most influential players to date in this campaign – Mark Coleman and Darragh Fitzgibbon – the latitude or leeway to make the impact Cork needed them to have.
Cáthrach Daly was outstanding on Fitzgibbon. He is still U20 but he had the pace and power to stick with Fitzgibbon and put him on the back foot, which was a metaphor for how Waterford could match and overwhelm Cork all over the field with their physical profile, superior work-rate and greater goal threat.
Cork will still point to their greater volume of shots (43-33), which underlines the amount of possession Cork had. The goals were the difference but so was the conversion rates, with Waterford’s coming in at 73% compared to Cork’s 56%.
Waterford were still always able to press the accelerator when they felt Cork’s hot breath on their necks. When Cork had reduced the deficit to three points just before the break, Waterford replied with three quickfire points, all off puck-outs, two off Cork restarts.
After Waterford’s third goal, Waterford went five minutes without having a shot but then they drove on again with 1-5 from their next seven shots. A handful of those scores came from puck-outs but Waterford hammered Cork on their own puck-outs, 2-10 from Shaun O’Brien’s restarts.
Waterford also mined 1-7 from Cork turnovers. In total, Cork turned over the ball on 32 occasions compared to Waterford’s 24.
Many of those Cork turnovers in the first half originated from long balls hit into their forward line but Cork did improve in that area after the break, with Cork scoring six points from that possession. Shane Kingston’s introduction was pivotal to that turnaround; from just four possessions, Kingston scored 0-3 and was fouled for a converted free.
Patrick Horgan was fouled for two converted frees in the second half but Horgan only had the ball in his hand five times over the 70 minutes.
Robbie O’Flynn had a good second half when scoring 1-2 and having an assist in that period. In assessing the numbers, O’Flynn and Shane Barrett were Cork’s two most productive forwards. As well as scoring two points, Barrett had a hand in four more scores.
The league is always the league but the concern for Cork now is that they were at full strength whereas Waterford were missing two of their marquee players, Jamie Barron and Austin Gleeson. Iarlaith Daly didn’t play either, while Dessie Hutchinson only had the ball in his hand on four occasions Cork won’t panic or tear up the script, but they have a lot of work to do, both on the training field, and off it with Gary Keegan, before Limerick arrive in town in two weeks.