AS THE Cork players, management and backroom team gathered together in the middle of the field after the final whistle on Sunday, there was a clear air of contentment and satisfaction amongst the group for a multitude of obvious reasons.
Cork performed well. They bossed the match from the word go, ensuring it was always played on their terms. They were dominant on puck-outs. They had some outstanding individual performances. Their bench made a huge contribution. It was a good start under Pat Ryan.
Any championship win is big, especially when Cork’s championship win-rate over the previous four seasons had only been 53%. Yet Sunday’s result was all the more satisfying again because it was the first time in five years that Cork tasted success on the opening day of the championship.
When Cork were well beaten by Limerick in the opening round last April, it was the first time in Cork’s history they lost their first championship match in four successive seasons. At least Cork had the second chance that wasn’t available in the past. They did win some big matches but, in three of those four years, Cork never recovered after that opening-day loss.
A fifth opening-day defeat in succession was unthinkable, but this was the weakest challenge Cork faced in that opening round over the last five years.
Waterford were flat and devoid of energy and intensity. They afforded Cork so much space that it allowed them make it exactly the type of match that Cork are primed to control and dominate.
Waterford’s set-up was hard to understand at times, especially on their own puckout. At stages of the first half, they had three or four forwards inside the Cork 20-metre line, hoping to break into the space outside if and when they won the long puckout.
They had created huge space in the central corridor behind the Cork half-back line, but Billy Nolan was pucking into a stiff breeze and Cork had a firm grip on his puck-out.
Critically, that lack of Waterford bodies in that space around the middle presented Cork with a huge licence to build back up the field when they won the puck-out.
Cork scored 0-4 off the Waterford puck-out in the first half, and 0-7 in total, with one of those points almost being converted into a goal when Nolan saved a Brian Roche attempt before Roche won the ball back and popped it over the bar.
Waterford clearly missed Tadgh de Búrca, especially when Jack Fagan struggled to adjust to the sweeper role de Búrca has perfected. Waterford’s overall challenge was so weak that it’s difficult to know how good Cork really were.
The league was never going to provide any accurate barometer of where Cork were at because the competition was so false but there were still signs that Cork have improved other areas where they struggled in the competition.
They still had more turnovers (34) than they’d have liked but they were more patient and efficient with their long ball into their attack. Cork still only won 49% of that possession but they got 0-7 from that source, some of which was generated off Waterford turnovers.
Cork had 10 more shots at the target (44-34) but their biggest concern was that Waterford could have had five goals.
Two of those chances were brilliantly saved or diverted by Damien Cahalane and, while there was never any sense of Waterford posing enough of a threat to derail Cork, those chances would be far more ruthlessly punished if they were presented to Tipperary on Saturday evening.
Cork got their match-ups right at the back, while they were smart and sharp on the line too, as you’d expect from Ryan. After Jack Prendergast won three puck-outs in quick succession late in the first half, two of which led to points, Cork switched Tommy O’Connell off Prendergast and moved Rob Downey onto him, with Downey immediately winning the next long puck-out over Prendergast.
Downey was Cork’s best player. O’Connell did have some difficult moments in the game but he was always competitive and abrasive and the Midleton man had three direct assists.
Cork had lots of quality performances. Darragh Fitzgibbon had five shots at the target in the opening six minutes, three of which he converted. Fitzgibbon only had six more possessions for the remainder of the game, but he got a critical point in the second half to break Waterford’s early momentum, and this was his first inter-county game in effectively nine months.
Roche only had nine possessions but his work-rate, tracking, tackling and willingness to hunt Waterford players in possession all over the field reflected everything Ryan is trying to instil in this group.
In Ryan’s world, the qualitative effectiveness of player data is measured as much by effort than output.
Seamus Harnedy got off a shot with four of his five possessions, scoring three points, but his work-rate was always high. From just six possessions, Patrick Horgan scored two points, had two assists and was fouled for a free. One of those assists could have been a goal when Horgan created the opening for Roche in the first half.
Harnedy and Horgan’s possession count was low because, despite Cork’s grip on possession – especially through puck-outs - Cork had more of a licence to shoot from deep or work the ball through the lines with the lack of heat from Waterford around the middle.
Yet that heat will be like a furnace on Saturday night when Tipp arrive in town. And that upcoming test will provide a far more accurate gauge of where Cork are really at.