IN the aftermath of their county semi-final win against Erin’s Own, Blackrock manager Louis Mulqueen complimented the talent of some of his players, especially Tadgh Deasy and Robbie Cotter.
Mulqueen felt they had something to offer to the Cork seniors but he also acknowledged that the environment in which his club players were performing could facilitate that potential down the line.
“What I like lately is that there is a bit of physicality in this championship,” said Mulqueen.
“I think that will stand to Cork senior hurlers as you go along. There are lots of hits out there. There is no one looking for frees.
“Everybody is taking them and giving them. That is the way Munster hurling is. When you look at Clare, Tipp, Limerick, it is a big physical game. Cork are now going in that right direction.”
One of the standout features of both teams in the upcoming county final is their size and physicality. Blackrock have been a big strong team for years but St Finbarr’s certainly possess that physique and size too.
A lot of that power has come from their younger players because some of those guys, especially Ben Cunningham, Ben O’Connor, Ethan Twomey and Brian Hayes are big men. What’s more, they’re only going to get far bigger and stronger, especially O’Connor who is still under 18, and Cunningham who is still under 19.
The majority of those young Barrs players who have been part of Cork underage sides in recent years are even more powerful again because of how immersed they have been in the S&C culture during that journey.
Their physical size adds to that power and potential to engage more aggressively in the physical contest.
Midleton were brilliant county champions last year but when they went into Munster afterwards, they struggled to physically cope with the savagery and intensity brought by Kilmallock, both in the tackle and at the breakdown.
The physical profiles of both teams that afternoon wasn’t too dissimilar to those of the Cork-Limerick senior sides in 2021, which meant that Midleton were always struggling to impose their game on their opponents.
When Cork met Limerick again in this year’s championship in April, they were physically savaged by a relentless barrage of Limerick power and physicality.
The size and strength of some of those talented young players on show throughout this club championship will benefit Cork going forward. Some of those players are still too young to make any real impression on the Cork team in 2023, but there are still enough of them equipped to make a start next season. It’s even more of an advantage for Cork with Pat Ryan having worked with a number of those players at U20 level.
On the otherhand, it would be wrong to think that Cork don’t have big men, or haven’t had enough of them in recent years. They may not have anything like the same physical profile or power that Limerick possess. But much of that perceived deficit in physicality and power has also been highlighted through Cork’s style of play.
Cork were trying to play to their strengths, using their speed, pace and class. That was completely understandable to a point, especially when the game is so heavily defined by systematically produced possession.
Yet the 2022 championship was a throwback because of such a return to old-school values. Clare set that agenda in the minds of the hurling public in how they physically stood up to Limerick twice in Munster in a way others had tried to avoid.
That was also obvious in the Limerick-Waterford game in late April when Waterford were still fresh and hadn’t been over-trained; they tried to match Limerick that evening with a more robust display than just a running game. Limerick eventually wore them down but Waterford still got a lot closer to Limerick than they’d managed in their two previous championship matches.
Cork’s main aim was not to get sucked into that whirlpool of brutality but the manner in how they were savaged against Limerick in trying to work the ball through the lines from the back was also a serious wake-up call, mostly to Cork, but also to everyone else.
Can any team hope to run the ball through that kind of a swarm in the middle third anymore? Every team is trying to work it through the midfield platform to some level, but there has also been a realisation that only so much possession can be protected anymore with close to 20 bodies in the middle third.
Cork did tweak their style during and after the Waterford game, which turned their season around. The structure and balance of their team was far better, with some players having switched into positions that suited them, which also added to the team chemistry. Yet they were also more direct in their play.
Ryan is a brilliant hurling mind who understands the complexities of the modern game. But he is also realistic enough to know that Cork’s style will need to be more risk-orientated, as opposed to being defined by risk-minimisation through seeking to avoid contact.
There is a delicate balance to that act but Cork know that they need to change and tweak their style. And they have enough big men coming on stream to try and get the formula right.