Response to league final will determine much about Cork's season as championship looms

Concession of four goals as much down to defensive basics as Waterford prowess
Response to league final will determine much about Cork's season as championship looms

Stephen Bennett fires home one his first and Waterford's second goal in the Allianz HL Division 1 final against Cork at FBD Semple Stadium. Picture: Inpho/Ken Sutton

We all know about Mike Tyson’s famous line when asked how he would deal with Evander Holyfield’s fight plan.

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” was the response, though ‘mouth’ is often replaced with ‘face’ in modern misquotation. Perhaps Tyson came up with it himself, but it is in effect a modern spin on Napoleon Bonaparte’s less emotive, “No battle plan ever survived first contact with the enemy.”

After a game, it’s always easy to look back at everything the winners did as being perfect while the losers will be said to have struggled in all areas. Certainly, Cork collectively under-performed – disappointingly, in some basic ways – in the Allianz Hurling League final and Waterford were very good and their tactics worked. However, it’s worth looking at the extent to which the outcome was down to tactics and how much of it can be put down to basics.

Waterford were direct and they ran at Cork, something exemplified by their second-half goals from Stephen Bennett and Dessie Hutchinson, but it wasn’t a case of them doing the same thing over and over and Cork not coping.

While Waterford were able to go short from Shaun O’Brien’s puckouts and work the ball up the field with runners off the shoulder, they weren’t averse to going long. On top of that, they weren’t afraid to go long with an imperfect pass, as they had enough men on the breaks to secure secondary possession. In contrast, Cork seemed to be looking for the ideal delivery, leading to a lack of incision when that pass wasn’t on.

There were some good moments, especially after a slow start had been overcome and the Rebels had tied at 0-7 each. On 18 minutes, Conor Lehane’s lovely pass to Shane Barrett took out three defenders and allowed the Blarney man to make it 0-6 to 0-4. From the puckout, Robert Downey broke ball, Mark Coleman won it and fed Barrett, who in turn provided a pass for Séamus Harnedy to point.

Then, when the score at 0-7 to 0-6 for Waterford, Ciarán Joyce claimed an O’Brien puckout – perhaps tellingly, he was closer to the half-back line than the full-back line when he did so – and within seconds Darragh Fitzgibbon and levelled. Unfortunately for Cork, it was to be the last time that there was parity.

Waterford’s first goal came immediately after as Downey was crowded out by the hard-working wing-forwards Neil Montgomery and Jack Prendergast, before Prendergast got on the ball and sent a long pass to Mikey Kearney. It would have been easy for the corner-forward to take a point but he took a second to survey his options and, with Mark Coleman closing off his avenue to goal, it allowed Patrick Curran to peel off and, with nobody else tracking back, he took Kearney’s pass on the run before firing past Patrick Collins.

When the long puckout in the wake of that was won by Tadhg de Búrca, Prendergast sent another searching ball forward and Montgomery won the break. However, he was able to glide past three Cork men and, again, a straightforward point opportunity was passed up in favour of an offload to the unmarked Bennett, who drilled a low shot home.

In fairness to Cork, that double concession was followed by three straight points but the deficit was never less than three thereafter and Waterford’s two second-half goals ensured that they retained a firm hold on proceedings. The third goal came when goalkeeper O’Brien sent a long ball to Bennett, who won the aerial ball ahead of Joyce but was still a considerable distance from goal.

Indeed, as he drove towards the danger area, Tim O’Mahony tried to get in a fair challenge when the pragmatic choice might have been a foul and one point lost rather than three – at the other end, Waterford ensured that avenues were closed off in this way. It’s worth noting too though that Curran and Hutchinson were on for passes inside but Bennett backed himself and was rewarded with another green flag.

The fourth goal, with five minutes of normal time left, came after Cork had battled back to within four points. The outstanding Carthach Daly was just inside the Cork 65 when he won possession but a surging run carried him to a position where he found Dessie Hutchinson, who for once had evaded Seán O’Donoghue, and he slotted home.

Again, a few road-blocks – legal or illegal – would have made life difficult for Daly but Cork lacked the manpower. While the team’s attacking has been very good during the league, it stands to reason that having more men back gives a greater chance of a turnover and then provides more passing options when it has been turned over.

Of course, Limerick are not Waterford and Sunday’s test will be a lot different, but how well the lessons from the league final are learned will dictate much about the success or failure of Cork’s year.

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