Cork v Antrim: Christy O'Connor on how the Rebels can push on towards Croker

Waterford manager Liam Cahill gambled on his approach to training earlier this season and Cork saved their season because of it
Cork v Antrim: Christy O'Connor on how the Rebels can push on towards Croker

Clare's Tony Kelly with Sean O'Donoghue and Ciarán Joyce of Cork. After two early losses, the hurlers are back on track. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

AFTER Waterford narrowly lost to Limerick at the end of April, Liam Cahill made a calculation that he must be regretting.

Waterford trained ferociously hard for 10 days. Cahill and Mikey Bevans have always pushed the players to their limits but it was reportedly the hardest training they had done.

Some of the running was on a par with what Cahill and Bevans inflicted on them in the winter after they took over Waterford in 2019, when they drove the players up and down a hill like husky dogs. It was that intense and torturous. The sustained blocks of hurling training Waterford did after the Limerick game were also reportedly savage.

Cahill clearly gambled. He surely expected Waterford to get into the top three in Munster, no matter what, and he wanted to get a heavy block of training deposited in the bank, which they could draw on for the rest of the championship.

Yet that calculation was surely made with Cork in mind, in that Cahill and his management expected to beat Cork in Walsh Park, irrespective of how hard they trained during that period.

It would have been a much safer bet for Cahill to keep the players fresh ahead of the Cork game, get the job done, and then maybe sacrifice a place in the Munster final by training that hard afterwards.

That three-week break between the Limerick and Cork games had allowed Waterford to get that work into them, but it didn’t have the desired effect. Waterford were flat against Cork and Clare.

There are a variety of reasons why a team malfunctions, but Cahill’s decision-making after the Limerick game backfired. And that miscalculation helped to turn Cork’s season on its head.

Patrick Curran of Waterford in action against Mark Coleman of Cork at Walsh Park last month. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Patrick Curran of Waterford in action against Mark Coleman of Cork at Walsh Park last month. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Cork could twist the narrative and say that their performance against Clare wasn’t as bad as it appeared, but Clare should have won that game by 10 points. Cork’s brittle confidence was obvious early on against Waterford: They trailed by four points despite playing with the stiff breeze.

Yet once they sensed that Waterford were off the pace, and as soon as Cork got some momentum, the confidence began surging through their veins again. After looking like their season was over, Cork’s summer suddenly had huge oxygen again.

BALANCE

Look at Cork now: After hammering Tipp, they appear to be in a really good place. The structure and balance of their team is far better, with some players having switched into positions that suit them, which has also added to the team chemistry.

The three-week break for qualifying as the third team has allowed Cork to refresh bodies and minds and recalibrate the machine. The pressure is off. The mindset is different.

Cork still had to get the job done against Waterford and Tipp, which they did. The Cork footballers have also been making progress since losing to Kerry, but they also got a serious break with the qualifier draw. Louth were the only Division 3 team in the hat for the first-round draw. Louth were missing four key players. And Cork got them at home.

Before last Monday’s draw, Limerick were the only Division 3 team in the pot. Limerick have made huge strides this year, but they were the draw everybody wanted, especially when they are coming off the back of a hammering from Kerry in the Munster final.

Drawing Limerick was all the more advantageous for Cork because it secured them a home game, a luxury afforded to no other team playing this weekend. Clare and Roscommon will be delighted to be travelling to Croke Park, but that still requires overcoming a logistical set of challenges that Cork don’t have to worry about.

The hurlers have a long-haul travel engagement in Corrigan Park, but it’s still a good game for Cork to get, even if it’s loaded with danger.

Antrim will be buoyed-up and confident after last Saturday’s Joe McDonagh Cup final win. Not having played before in Corrigan Park is another challenge that should put Cork on their guard.

Kieran Kingston and his management can’t afford to look at this match as an opportunity to get game-time into certain players and to road-test tactical strategies beyond their own internal training games.

Those chances will come if Cork are on top in the second half, but Kingston will be fully aware of how dangerous this game is if Cork aren’t mentally ready for it. Antrim beat Clare in Corrigan Park in the league last year, before drawing with Wexford. They should have beaten Waterford in the Belfast venue this year.

Cork should still win with a bit to spare, but the timing of this tricky challenge is even more ideal, with Galway coming down the tracks seven days later.

Within the space of a handful of weeks, everything has flipped for the hurlers and the footballers. By Sunday evening, both sides should be in All-Ireland quarter-finals.

The footballers won’t be expected to reach an All-Ireland semi-final, but they would have given anything for the opportunity to even get near an All-Ireland quarter after the 12-point defeat to Kerry. They still have to beat Limerick, but they’re more than capable of doing so.

In early May, the Cork hurlers and footballers were in the horrors. Just five weeks later, though, and the dynamic has radically changed.

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