IN the 55th minute of Sunday’s game, Jack Prendergast won a ball just beyond midfield before taking off in the direction of the Cork goal.
Prendergast has explosive pace but Robert Downey and Shane Kingston were on his heels and Kingston eventually turned the ball over before Prendergast could pull the trigger as he was about to enter the square.
The ball was still loose but as Prendergast was trying to scramble it back into his hand, Cork had eight players, along with goalkeeper Pa Collins, in the square. Dessie Hutchinson still managed to flick the ball on the ground but it was never getting past such a mass of Cork bodies and the sliotar rolled harmlessly wide.
Everything that Cork needed to do win on Sunday, and which they hadn’t done against Limerick and Clare, was perfectly encapsulated in that moment. Cork have always had the talent, class and pace but those qualities have never been Cork’s issue.
One of the biggest criticisms between the league final and the Clare game was that not enough players were committed to getting back the field to avert danger when it materialised.
Cork stepped up but they had to when they were fighting to stay in the championship. The work-rate and intensity was the most pleasing aspect but Cork will still have to acknowledge that this was a poor display from Waterford, even if Cork contributed to that by knocking them off their stride.
Waterford had more shots (41-39) but their conversion rate of 49% was in stark contrast to Cork’s 62%. Cork’s press on the Waterford puck-out was far better than it had been. Even when Waterford did go short, they never had those same options on the second and third balls which Clare and Limerick had done so much damage on.
Yet Waterford still did a lot of damage on puck-outs, scoring 1-8 off their own puck-out, and 0-7 off the Cork puck-out, a lot of which were secured on those second and third balls.
But the most impressive aspect of the puck-out battle was that Cork never let it get out of control when it was threatening to. The opening 10 minutes was an absolute horror show for Cork on puck-outs, with Waterford winning that battle 10-0 and translating that possession into five points. Yet from there to the end of the half, Cork won the puckout battle 14-8.
Cork mined 1-7 from that possession but they really turned the screw on Waterford just before the break when winning five Waterford puck-outs. They turned that possession into three points but it could have been five because Cork also had two wides from those five balls.
In the end, Cork scored 2-16 off puck-outs, 1-7 off their own restarts and 1-9 off Waterford’s, which was a colossal return given how much Cork had struggled on puck-outs.
After riding out the early storm, Cork’s energy and confidence grew as the first half progressed. They had the wind at their backs but they were caught in a bind between using the elements from distance or trusting that they could profit from direct ball into their full-forward line.
Cork had more of a licence to do so when Waterford were pressing so hard on the Cork puck-out but they had to abandon that tactic after winning just three of the first nine balls hit into their inside forward line. Cork still mined three points from those balls but Cork had every right to use the wind to try and get the scoreboard moving.
Shooting from distance is always a risk with the breeze. Wides are inevitable but Cork’s conversion rate of 60% in the first half was enough to give them a strong foothold in the match. They had seven different scorers from play while Alan Connolly was influential despite only having the ball in his hand once in that half; as well as scoring the first goal, he was also fouled for two converted frees.
It was a tense opening half for both teams but Cork handled the pressure better. Waterford looked in a very commanding position when leading by 0-6 to 0-2 against the breeze but once they surrendered that control they never got it back.
The Cork management made a brave call in taking off Patrick Horgan early in the second half but it had to be made considering Horgan only had one possession up to that point.
Replacing Horgan with Tim O’Mahony was all the braver again but it worked because he gave Cork a constant out-ball option; from his first two plays, O’Mahony had an assist for a Seamus Harnedy point as well as having a hand in Connolly’s second goal.
Harnedy was outstanding; from 15 plays he scored five points, while he was fouled for two converted frees and he also had a huge hand in Connolly’s second goal.
Conor Lehane also had a massive game, scoring three points and was involved in four more scores. More importantly, Lehane’s work-rate was huge all afternoon.
Yet so was Cork’s. Because it had to be.