THE Rebels are back.
Kind of. Cork responded to their disappointing start to the championship with a season-saving win against the Déise, giving the whole county a lift in a way that only hurling can.
Now they can make the All-Ireland quarter-finals if they beat Tipperary on the road on Sunday. Here are the key issues they face.
The Cork management have some huge calls to make in attack.
Shane Kingston was electric again as an impact sub. He fired over a couple of points but more importantly, his clever first-time stick pass teed up Alan Connolly’s game-breaking second goal and his tracking deep was critical. Twice he popped up back inside Cork’s 13-metre line harassing and forcing turnovers coming down the stretch.
It wasn’t as showy as his Man of the Match 0-7 in the All-Ireland semi-final last summer or the 0-3 in the league final, but Kingston is the type of strong, quick and versatile forward who guarantees a return off the bench. Cork will probably stick with that option for Thurles.
It has been suggested this week that Patrick Horgan would be a better bet being brought on like Kingston. He’s now four points clear of Joe Canning as championship hurling’s all-time top-scorer but just couldn’t get into the flow of the game from play last Sunday. Cork turned to Tim O’Mahony as a second target-man alongside Connolly and that tactical change proved crucial.
Still, Semple Stadium is a bigger pitch than Walsh Park and Horgan now has a point to prove: he’d 0-3 from play the game before.
Conor Lehane was utilised as a sub for the Clare loss but, as was the case in 2019 and ’20 when was out of the first 15, it’s not a role he’s particularly adept at and one of the reasons he ended up cut from the panel last year. His work-rate and tackling against Waterford set the tone and he was withdrawn late on to a rapturous reception.
Even if Cork decide to start O’Mahony, he can come in ahead of youngster Shane Barrett. That would leave Horgan at the edge of the D and Kingston as the first sub in.
From zeros to heroes. Cork were being slated everywhere, not least inside the county bounds but now Rebels are buzzing again after returning from Waterford with a win. A small, albeit very vocal, crowd were at Walsh Park last weekend but we can expect a much larger support in Thurles against Tipp. And they’ll be expecting a huge display again.
Cork are favourites, which will suit the Premier down to the ground. There’s a small chance they can come third in Munster, though they’re relying on Clare to beat Waterford. They’d love to finish off the campaign with a victory if nothing. Cork are in the straightforward position, in that a win will secure them an All-Ireland quarter-final against the Leinster runners-up. However, as Kieran Kingston has stated on a number of occasions, putting back-to-back performances together has been an issue for some time.
They won three games in row, for the first time since 2006, to reach last year’s All-Ireland final, though they went five games unbeaten under John Meyler in 2018, three wins and two draws securing a Munster title under the round-robin format.
Cork were wired from the throw-in against Waterford, Luke Meade celebrating an early free right in front of a pumped-up Kieran Kingston in the dugout.
One of the reasons the Rebel faithful were so frustrated against Clare was there wasn’t enough bite in the team or management. There was no shortage of it at Walsh Park, from Darragh Fitzgibbon and Robbie O’Flynn’s ferocious tackling in the middle third to Kingston and Pat Mulcahy’s passion on the sideline.
Cork coughed up a few cheap frees as a consequence but that intensity will be required again in Thurles and beyond if they’re to return to Croke Park this summer.