WHENEVER Cork are in full-flow, when their tails are up and their confidence is flowing, when the crowd are buzzing and crackling with excitement and expectation, the Cork hurlers have always been able to plug into that electricity and turn into an irresistible and irrepressible force.
The champagne comes out and the corks pop all over the field. Tim O’Mahony’s goal on Sunday was a throwback to everything that made Cork hurling what it was, and what everyone in the county is desperate to return to.
In the mind’s eye of so many of their supporters, nostalgia and sentiment was dripping from the creation and execution of the finish. From the moment Darragh Fitzgibbon flicked the ball under his feet into the ground to O’Mahony’s first time finish, images of what Seánie O’Leary, Jimmy Barry-Murphy and John Fitzgibbon used to regularly do came flooding back.
It instantly evoked memories of what it used to be like for Cork, as well as re-enacting the old tales of wizardry that so many of the younger generation had heard about but had never actually seen.
Of course these current Cork players have shown incredible class and similar individual flashes of brilliance over the years but it always feels different when it happens against Tipperary in Thurles. And particularly when it comes in such an important knockout match that sends Tipp home for the year.
This Cork team has always been defined by huge levels of skill, class and pace but now that they have married those qualities with the intensity and work-rate in the last two matches that is a baseline requirement just to survive at this level, everything has changed. Suddenly, the dynamic and mood on and off the field is completely different.
For all of Cork’s brilliance on Sunday, the standout statistic is this – on 14 occasions, a Cork forward was back inside his own 45 to win possession as an out-ball option to build the play. Some of those players were there anyway from having tracked a runner or to just work back the field but – similar to the Waterford game - their presence in that area of the field underlined the mindset change from the Limerick and Clare games.
Making the first tackle is never enough. The modern game requires players to repeatedly stay in the tackle, to remain in the hunt or that phase of play until the ball is turned over or the play ends. And Cork have finally grasped that reality.
The challenge for Cork going forward though, is to maintain that relentless intensity. Cork will always look devastating when they are allowed the time and space that Tipp granted them from being so loose but, assuming Cork win the preliminary quarter-final, they won’t get that freedom for the remainder of the championship.
Cork won’t fear Galway or Kilkenny in an All-Ireland quarter-final but they will still meet a level of power and relentlessness that they weren’t faced with from Tipp and Waterford, and which they ultimately couldn’t handle from Clare and Limerick.
The flipside is that Cork are brimming with a level of confidence again that they seemed to lose after the league final, and which was clearly lacking for the Clare and Limerick matches.
The structure and balance of the team is better. Cork are mixing their game up more now and have a much better blend to their style of play. Key players have returned to form. The bench is making an impact again.
And the scores have started to flow. Their 3-30 was the highest championship score Cork have hit in normal time since their destruction of Westmeath in the 2019 preliminary quarter-final.
Cork had 48 shots, with a 69% conversion rate. Cork scored 3-24 from play compared to Tipp’s 1-11.
Similar to the Waterford game, there were lots of positives on puckouts; Cork scored 1-9 from their own puckout while they mined 1-7 off the Tipp puckout. Cork won 13 of their long 19 puckouts. More importantly, Tipperary only sourced two points off the Cork puckout, which has been a massive improvement since the opening two games.
The only downside was that Cork again turned the ball over more than 30 times, with Tipp translating that possession into 1-10.
Cork had brilliant performances all over the field. From 18 plays, Mark Coleman scored two points and had two assists and was always creative on the ball. Rob Downey had another fine game while Ciarán Joyce continues to grow and develop at number 6; Joyce was also effective from 18 plays.
Between them, Robbie O’Flynn, Seamus Harnedy and Shane Kingston made a combined 40 plays, which amounted to 0-10, while those three players also had a hand in seven more scores.
Harnedy was unlucky not to engineer a goal and the goal threat is firmly back. Alan Connolly scored one goal and could have had another while Connolly almost set up a green flag opportunity for Patrick Horgan. As well as scoring his goal, O’Mahony nearly bagged another.
The best player on show by a distance though, was Conor Lehane; from 22 plays, Lehane scored seven points, had four assists, while he was fouled for a converted free and had a hand in another point. Lehane could have had two goals while he had a hand in another chance.
It was a display for the ages from Lehane. It was another really impressive performance from Cork. But it was only a start because much bigger challenges are coming.
Yet the mood and dynamic has suddenly flipped. And all of a sudden, Cork appear dangerous again.