Isn’t it good to be back? The expectation, the excitement, the hope beyond hope that things might be different this time around. And then ultimately, the despondency. I’ve missed it. During the summer, as the club scene made the most of it’s day in the sun, we convinced ourselves that Cork hurling was in a good place. The Rockies were back, the Glen were back, and the good times were sure to follow. Saturday’s game and the return to inter-county action after a seven-month hiatus came like a bucket of cold water flung over our heads, waking us from our sweet reveries and reminding us that while the world around us continues to distort itself beyond recognition, the Cork hurlers remain impervious to change. Old habits certainly die hard down here.
You could say the signs were there. Late last Friday night, the Cork GAA website became momentarily incapacitated, owing to the high traffic generated by hordes of impatient supporters trying to access the starting fifteen. A complete systems breakdown and an inability to cope under sustained pressure? Looking back, maybe the writing was on the wall. This wasn’t going to be a good weekend. As half nine came and went, Cork supporters collectively refreshed their twitter feeds and waited for the team to show up. By Saturday evening, they were still waiting.
Where to start? What to write that hasn’t already been written countless times before? A work-rate deficiency for a start, that old chestnut, the long-held allegations of which were evidenced recently by the GAA data analyst Brian McDonnell. According to the analysis, Cork’s ‘work-rate ratio’, which in brass tax boils down to hooks, blocks and tackles was the second lowest of all the teams assessed in last year’s championship. Isn’t hunger meant to be the natural by-product of a famine? Augment those old failings with an unconvincing defence, for whom indiscipline acts as a thin veil over their continued inadequacies and a forward division operating once again in fits and starts and you begin to wonder how the final margin wasn’t more than four points.
And of course, we all know the answer to that one too. For much of the game, Hoggy ploughed a lonely furrow, sustaining himself and those around him on crumbs. Would any other player in the game have been capable of conjuring five points from play from such a measly provision? Honestly, we don’t deserve him. Around him, Cork’s supporting cast took it in turns to offer fleeting moments of distinction before drifting back into anonymity. Lehane and Cadogan were first up to briefly present themselves as viable threats, before Shane Kingston took up the reigns before half-time. Seamús Harnedy put in a solid ten-minute shift after half-time and that was about the bones of it really. “We’ll leave the rest to you Hog, good man yourself.”
Now, the paucity of decent service didn’t help matters either. Whatever happened to the low, diagonal balls into space upon which our forwards thrived a couple of years ago? In ’17 and ’18 in particular, it was our bread and butter, with Kearney and Meade dropping deep and vacating the space into which a cross-field ball could be delivered for Horgan and co. to make hay. Overly simplistic perhaps but it worked. What was Saturday’s game plan? It certainly wasn’t that. Sure, de Burca was immense but we could have made him earn his corn a bit more at the same time. The wiry Jack O’Connor was introduced to the fray shortly after half-time, all 11 stone of him, and we proceeded to rain ball down on the poor lad as if he was Aisake reincarnate. I mean, not exactly playing to his strengths.
Lamentably, Conor Lehane’s Jeckyll to Hyde ratio is now weighted firmly in the latter category and it is becoming almost impossible for even his staunchest of advocates to sustain a valid argument on his behalf. Having begun the game like a man on a quest to soften the coughs of his many doubters, with a virtuoso opening four-minutes comprising two stylish points and one deft overhead assist, his performance quickly petered into nothingness. Not for the first time, he seemed lost and listless, which is a crying shame for a player who for much of his career has endured an unjustified tumult of ire.
It’s all duck or no dinner next Saturday when we meet the Dubs up in Thurles. We can’t afford to be as abject again, against a side that proved at the weekend that at the very least, they’ll die with their boots on. We beat the Dubs unconvincingly four years ago down in Pairc Ui Rinn, in what was Kingston’s first year at the helm. The victory proved to be nothing more than a stay of execution before Liam Dunne’s game but limited Wexford side finally put us out of our misery. Unless some tough calls are made, one can’t help but feel like a similar fate awaits.
To give Kingston his due, he’s done it before. In the wake of that Wexford defeat, he rejuvenated the panel and in the Munster opener against Tipp the following year, Mark Coleman, Shane Kingston, Darragh Fitzgibbon, Luke Meade and Colm Spillane all made their inaugural championship starts. We won by four. (Lehane bagged five from play that day, to all those with short memories). Given the limited timescale, a similar regeneration of the team is probably unlikely before next weekend. Nonetheless, a radical shake-up is undoubtedly required if Cork are to salvage anything from this horrible season.
Even allowing for the inclusion of the two debutants last Saturday, Cork’s starting fifteen boasted over 300 championship appearances between them, appearances which have oscillated for the most part between the infuriatingly mediocre and the downright wretched. The high points, regrettably, have been all too rare. The old dog for the hard road, as some might argue. And the road can only get harder from here. However, one must seriously question now whether these dogs will ever have their day.