Hurling League Preview: The Cooper Expirement and The Lehane Dilemma

The Cork hurler’s 2020 season begins in earnest (a term I use very lightly) next Sunday, when they travel to Waterford for the opening round of the league. The latest format reshuffling aims to breed new life into an ailing competition while also aiding the development of some of hurling’s weaker counties. The result of the restructuring, however, will almost certainly culminate in a litany of beatings for Westmeath, while removing the threat of relegation for the remaining counties in Division 1A. At least, Cork supporters can look forward to another trip to Mullingar and the iconic vista afforded by Cusack Park’s Dunnes Stores End.

The beauty of the league has always been in the eye of the beholder, insofar as it can be whatever you want it to be. While good results will inevitably be taken at face value, defeats can just as easily be attributed to a heavy training block, the blooding of youth or the knowledge that a full hand should never be shown in springtime. The correlation between Cork’s league form and their subsequent championship performances has rarely been uniform; relegation in 2013 was followed by an All-Ireland final appearance while a sixth-place finish in 2018 preluded a highly successful provincial campaign. With all that in mind, it’s best not to devote too much emotional energy to these early-season encounters.

Kieran Kingston may view things differently of course. Returning to the hotseat after a two-year absence, the Tracton man has inherited a squad not all that different to the one he left in 2017. Of the players that played against Waterford in that year’s All-Ireland semi-final, Kingston’s final game in charge, fourteen were involved in the defeat to Kilkenny last summer. The average age of that set of players is now close to twenty-eight, suggesting that team rejuvenation is a prerequisite for any future success. As such, the integration of personnel from Cork’s relatively successful underage sides will be the main priority over the coming months. Thankfully, Kingston has form in this regard; Colm Spillane, Mark Coleman, Darragh Fitzgibbon, Luke Meade and Shane Kingston having all made their breakthrough under his tutelage. Of the current crop of young talent vying for recognition, Sean Twomey and Brian Turnbull both impressed during the pre-season tournament while Ger Mellerick will surely stake their claim after impressing during Fr. O’Neill’s club championship odyssey.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the new Cork bainisteoir is establishing a dominant half-back line, upon which an All-Ireland challenge can be built. An impenetrable fortification for much of the ‘00s, Cork’s half-back line has been a notorious weakness ever since the holy trinity of Gardiner, Curran and O’hAilpin departed the scene (the trio played their last game together in the 2010 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Kilkenny). In the intervening years, five different players have been tasked with buttressing the Cork defence from centre-back, namely William Egan, Eoin Cadogan, Christopher Joyce, Mark Ellis and most recently Tim O’Mahony. Similarly, thirteen different players have played championship hurling from wing-back since 2013. Bill Cooper looks set to start the league at No. 6, a challenging assignment for a thirty-year old unfamiliar with the nuances of the role. While Cooper’s physicality and abrasiveness will certainly be welcomed, his ball distribution is nowhere near the level exacted by the likes of Declan Hannon in Limerick or the Mahers in Tipperary. A square peg can only go so far in a round hole.

As is often the case with this Cork team, defensive frailties can be offset to an extent by the efficacy at the other end. While Horgan, Harnedy and Cadogan can all be relied upon to keep the scoreboard ticking over, Kingston will be hoping to add to that potent triumvirate. Conor Lehane in particular, needs to rid himself of the inconsistency that often frustrates Cork supporters and management alike. Perhaps it is unfair to criticize a player who has averaged three points a game in championship since his debut in 2011 but considering the dearth of scoring talent available in the half-forward line, Cork can not afford any oscillation in Lehane’s performances this season. In February 2017, Kieran Kingston dropped Patrick Horgan for a couple of league games, hoping to coax more out of his talisman. It goes without saying that it had the desired effect. Will we see a similar stick-over-carrot approach this spring with Lehane?

Sunday’s trip down east can be treated as a reconnaissance mission for the end of May. A chance to familiarize oneself with the N25 and maybe ascertain an appropriate hostelry close to the ground. If a couple of prodigious young talents can be unearthed, then all the better. Maybe Bill Cooper will announce himself as the defensive anchor we’ve lacked for over a decade. Maybe not. Maybe Conor Lehane will begin to dominate games in the way we always hoped he would. Maybe not. It’s shadow boxing, sparring practice or whatever analogy you’re having yourself for the next two months. And if things start to go pear-shaped, just remember that we lost up in Laois in ’99.

We’ll know more when the clocks go back.

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