CORK head into the lions' den that is Walsh Park on Sunday knowing that they must brush off their eggshell like confidence and somehow garner a victory if they want to keep their season alive.
The season looked to be going to plan when Cork beat Kilkenny at Páirc Uí Chaoimh to qualify for the league final in early April, but a resounding defeat in that game against Waterford in Thurles seriously dented confidence levels, and the team has not really recovered since.
Cork are not alone in being damaged by a disastrous prolonged league campaign. Wexford had won every game of their Division 1A campaign only to be completely undone with a blitzkrieg of goals at Nowlan Park in their league semi-final against the Déise. They have not really recovered from that hiding either, and know that they will have to beat Kilkenny in the final round to have any chance of emerging from Leinster.
Mayo are another example. They had a brilliant spring campaign to come second in a very competitive football Division 1, only to be destroyed to the tune of a point a man in the final against Kerry. In their first championship game against Division 2 side Galway they were beaten.
This does not bode well for the 2023 league. Any manager looking at the fate of Cork, Wexford and Mayo might well decide “no thanks” when deciding whether to give the league a right rattle.
Cork’s game against Clare was built as a season-defining one, but Cork ended up losing that, so now here we are, not even in mid-May, and the Cork hurlers have a proper 'kill or be killed' tie against what are probably the second-best team in the land at present. If Cork don’t show up this weekend then it is curtains.
The displays against Limerick and Clare simply were not good enough. The management and players will be well aware of this.
In analysing these defeats closely it would appear that a lot of Cork’s issues stem from putting so much energy into devising a defensive system to stop goals going in at their end that they have almost completely lost their way going forward.
While last year Cork were the great goal-getters, they have since dried up. Shane Kingston scored a first-minute screamer against Limerick and Darragh Fitzgibbon slotted an injury-time consolation effort against Clare, but in the ensuing 140 odd minutes of championship hurling, they only had Alan Connolly’s superbly kicked effort to crow about.
If Cork are to scalp Liam Cahill’s side then they must do what many of Cahill’s sides have done to Cork teams down the years – they must go for the jugular and score goals, lots of them.
Cork will not have reinvented the wheel in the fortnight since the Clare defeat. We can expect numerous tweaks in terms of personnel and positioning, but the baby will not be thrown out with the bathwater.
Or maybe see the likes of Sean Twomey, Declan Dalton or Colin O’Brien brought in to add more physical presence to the attack, but as those moves were not really trialled in the league we can’t be expecting them now.
Ultimately, it is up to the players who have dug this hole to dig themselves back out, and they are good enough, but they have to be good enough on the day, and therein lies the biggest question of all. Which version of Cork is going to show up on Sunday?
In the defeat to Clare there were numerous instances where Cork players (usually forwards), failed to win possession and then when their marker got the ball in the hand they made a brief token effort to tackle or track back. If that is the version of Cork we see down in Waterford then we can throw the hat at 2022.
We all know that a lot of the Cork players are simply not suited to that type of hurling. Cork have had a tendency to favour the same type of attacking player for years now – the speedy, more skilful type – as Cork bank on outhurling the opposition with sheer skill and pace.
And that approach is fine, to a degree, as long as these same players bring the required work-rate to the table. To have any chance of beating Waterford this area of their game is going to have to have drastically improved.