THE first year of the Mark Keane hurling experiment with Cork might not have been a major success, but there is no reason why year two might not see a major breakthrough for the Ballygiblin hurler.
Keane’s Premier Senior Hurling Championship campaign came to an end with Avondhu’s 3-29 to 1-20 defeat to Imokilly in the final of the Divisional/Colleges section of the championship on August 21, meaning outside of Ballygiblin’s junior championship campaign it was the last chance for new Cork manager Pat Ryan to cast an eye over the former AFL professional.
Keane tends to get thrown about the place by the various managers he plays for, depending on the needs of the particular time. He has played at centre-back a lot and shown that he will catch most puck-outs sent straight down on top of him, but when his team is chasing a game he gets placed up front in search of a goal threat.
So, if Pat Ryan and his selectors have him in their plans for next year, where should he be used by Cork?
In this year’s campaign, he did not get too many minutes, but the few he did were either as a ball-winning role in the half-forward line, or the brief run-out he got at full-forward against Offaly in the league.
Cork are clearly crying out for more physicality in the forward line and he would certainly add that, but to maximise his contribution in the team it would arguably be best to use him in the Will O’Donoghue role.
The Limerick midfielder is seen by many as the glue that knits the imperious Limerick middle eight together, allowing the half-back line to get forward and pop over scores from deep, while also helping the much-heralded half-forward line to physically dominate in open play and on the scoreboard.
O’Donoghue doesn’t get on the scoreboard much himself. He only scored two points in seven championship appearances in 2022 and the most he has ever scored in a championship year was the three points he popped over in 2020. Indeed, despite being a cornerstone of this great Limerick side he has yet to reach double figures in terms of championship scores.
It is an extremely important role within that Limerick team and one where a great deal of discipline and self-sacrifice is required, and it is one that former professional athlete Keane is more than capable of filling for Cork.
Since Bill Cooper retired Cork have lacked that ‘enforcer’ type in midfield that is so crucial in the modern game, which has meant that Cork are too easy to play through.
From looking at the Cork U20 sides that Pat Ryan managed in recent years it is clear that getting areas such as work-rate, intensity and tackling in the middle eight as high as possible are clear aims, so being able to field big, strong athletes who can match the Will O’Donoghue’s of this world is going to be central to any success Cork will have going forward.
The skills of the likes of Darragh Fitzgibbon and Mark Coleman will still be required, of course, but Cork need steel too.
An added bonus of having someone like Mark Keane as a number eight is he could easily drop back on opposition puck-outs and pick up the likes of Gearoid Hegarty, or he could go the other way, temporarily swapping with a wing forward to give the Cork goalkeeper a big target to hit deep. Catching ball from puck-outs is one of the main skills that he brings to the table, so it is something Cork could use.
Ideally Keane would be only one of three or four big men brought in by Ryan to help Cork be more durable in the physical stakes. Sean Twomey is another player with that element to his game. He is a talented hurler but has something to offer in terms of ball-winning ability.
Further forward, the likes of Colin O’Brien and Declan Dalton, or maybe even senior footballer Brian Hayes, can help Cork compete in the size stakes, as it is patently obvious that the balance between power and skill has tipped towards the power side in recent years, and there is no sign of that changing anytime soon.