AS the Cork footballers and hurlers are about to enter brand new seasons you can’t help shake the feeling that size is going to matter a lot in terms of both teams’ successes and failures.
The last great Cork football team, from 2007 to 2012, was a huge side. All-Ireland glory was achieved in 2011, with All-Ireland defeats coming in 2007 and 2009. Munster titles were picked up in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2012. Oh, and there was the three Division 1 titles and the one Division 2 title garnered in four consecutive years between 2009 and 2012 as well. That team was a serious unit.
Looking back at the spine of Conor Counihan’s team and it was an imposing side physically. A combination of Michael Shields, Graham Canty, Derek Kavanagh, Alan O’Connor, Aidan Walsh, Nicholas Murphy, Pearse O’Neill usually filled the 3, 6, 8, 9 and 11 jerseys, while the likes of Eoin Cadogan, Noel O’Leary, Fintan Gould, Ciaran Sheehan and Patrick Kelly were not exactly small.
The 6' 7" Michael Cussen played a big role for a couple of seasons too and when Cork beat Meath by 1-16 to 0-9 in the All-Ireland semi-final of 2007 you actually had to feel sympathy for the Meath goalkeeper, as when he looked to go long with his kick-outs he saw a red wall comprising of Kavanagh, Murphy, O’Neill and Cussen in front of him blocking his escape route.
That Cork team physically dominated and bullied most opponents it faced, and the previous great team of the late ’80s-early ’90s did likewise, with the likes of Shea Fahy, Danny Culloty, Teddy McCarthy and Larry Tompkins dominating the centre in similar fashion.
The game has certainly moved on since these great Cork sides were in their pomp. The short kick-out has now become an integral part of the game, whether we like it or not. Most fans would probably prefer the old midfield battles, but any team harbouring All-Ireland ambitions these days has to be able to guarantee a high percentage of their kick-outs from short, low kick-outs to teammates. Stephen Cluxton changed the game forever in this respect.
So, while a huge midfield is not as important these days, the likes of 6' 5" Brian Fenton and 6' 3" David Moran indicate that it can be advantageous to have size on your side nonetheless.
Cork’s injury crisis of recent years has meant the likes of Killian O’Hanlon, Brian Hartnett and Daniel O’Connell have been absent around the middle, while Mark Keane’s move to Aussie Rules and then hurling has not helped either.
The Cork hurlers have the considerable obstacle of Limerick standing in their way next year, although Clare and Kilkenny proved this year that if you can match them physically that they may just about be beatable.
Ultimately new Cork manager Pat Ryan will be fully aware that Cork needs to become a more robust team, and any significant changes in personnel are likely to occur with this in mind.
The aforementioned Mark Keane is a case in point. His switch to hurling a year ago was greeted negatively in some quarters, but thanks to Ballygiblin’s double march to provincial deciders in this calendar year he has managed to fast-track his hurling development over the past 12 months. It will be interesting to see what role, if any, Ryan envisages for him. He lines out at centre-back at club level, but with Ciáran Joyce seemingly having the red number six jersey tied up for the foreseeable it may be as a holding number eight where he gets a run in the team.
Given that he would probably play a significant role for the footballers on that panel, it would seem to be a waste if he wasn’t utilised by the hurlers. Use him, or lose him should be the mantra.
It is a similar story regarding Std Finbarr’s Brian Hayes. It is not 100% clear at present which squad Hayes will play for, but like Keane, you would hope that whichever panel he plays for can get the best out of him.
The likes of Hayes and Keane can ensure that Cork becomes one of the most physically imposing teams around once more. Having them sitting on the pine when the other panel could use them would be a pity.