What a couple of days for the Rebels. The footballers took care of Kerry, the crowd down in Ringaskiddy are taking care of the other virus and alas, the Cork hurlers are back in business. Phew! For a moment there last week, it appeared as if we had a porous defence, a lethargic midfield and a malfunctioning forward line; irreparable deficiencies laid bare by the lack of a coherent game plan. Glad that’s all sorted then.
Thank god for the Dubs. While Cork are often maligned, and rightly so, for their propensity to disappoint at any given time, the Dublin hurlers ability to capitulate remains unrivalled. Back in 2012, Anthony Daly remarked after a drubbing from Kilkenny that they’d have fared better had he gathered up twenty players at the Red Cow Roundabout. Since then, save for their solitary provincial success in 2013, whenever Dublin have threatened to become serious hurling contenders, their Red Cow doppelgangers emerge to quash those fanciful notions. The ideal opposition then for a Cork team looking to bounce back from their own most recent relapse and generate a bit of positivity and momentum.
The team selection helped too of course, with Kingston, to give him his due, disposing of one third of the team that performed so abjectly against Waterford. Five changes, one albeit enforced. The other four dislodged could hardly have had any grievances. But last Saturday’s improved showing owed itself to much more than a change in personnel. Cork were a different animal entirely. There were hooks, blocks and everything in between. ‘The basics’ as Donal O’Grady would coin them. There was a bit of nastiness thrown in for good measure too, a term which is not often used when describing this Cork team. And don’t you just love to see it.
The Cork defence in particular, has been undermined in recent years by the warmth of its own hospitality – think Pat Donellan and Conor McGrath in ’13, Austin Gleeson in ’14, Johnny Glynn in ‘15, Gleeson again in ’17 and Callum Lyons only last week, all of whom weren’t so much as asked to take their shoes off before entering the premises. When Donal Burke bore down on goal last Saturday, Colm Spillane made it abundantly clear that such geniality would no longer be forthcoming. Alongside him, Damien Cahalane, Sean O’Donoghue and upon his entry, Steven McDonnell succeeded in copper-fastening that meanness. Hell’s Kitchen it may not be, but it’s no open-house buffet either.
In front of them, Robert Downey and Tim O’Mahony offered size and steel in equal measure and were content in breaking ball, safe in the knowledge that Mark Coleman would never be too far away. The concept of playing a sweeper has often been deemed antonymous to all Cork hurling holds dear, a violation of our ‘Corkness’, a profane dogma upheld by heretics like Derek McGrath and Davy Fitz. Back in 2016, Kingston experimented with the extraneous concept in the championship opener against Tipperary, with William Egan drafted into the role. The outcome was so calamitous that the tactic was soon discarded.
Last Saturday, Mark Coleman perfected the role and as with Tadgh de Burca a week previously, combined elegance with acuity to snuff out potential danger and initiate countless attacks. Acting as Cork’s deep-lying playmaker (or ‘Libero’ to borrow from Italian football parlance), Coleman roamed the half-back line, converged on any loose ball that entered his domain and sprayed passes with accuracy and aplomb. That he was allowed dictate the game undisturbed is another matter. He won’t be afforded such autonomy next weekend, that’s for certain.
Around the middle-third, the introduction of Luke Meade and in particular, Robbie O’Flynn added the pace and dynamism that was so conspicuously absent against Waterford. Back in February, O’Flynn bagged 1-3 against Tipperary down the Park, an indication that he might finally build on his potential and become a prominent player in Cork’s attack. His club form this summer solidified the hope that this might be a breakout year for the young Erin’s Own man, who since his intercounty debut in 2018, has been reduced to cameo appearances from the bench. O’Flynn notched five from play against Dublin, all the while acting as an invaluable outlet for Nash’s laser-like puckouts. We’ll need more of the same next weekend. The Tipp game is likely to be a shoot-out and we’ll need to bring every gun in our armoury if we’re to have any hope of toppling the All-Ireland champions.
And what of the talismanic Horgan, consigned on this occasion to a supporting role where thankfully, his relatively subdued performance (by his own exalted standards that is) didn’t render Cork’s attack completely rudderless. He was due a quiet day to be fair to the man. The decision to remove him from his natural habitat in the corner and repurpose him out the field was a strange one however. Without wanting to denigrate the performances of Jack O’Connor and Deccie Dalton who acquitted themselves admirably in their maiden championship starts, one must wonder how much damage Horgan would have inflicted had he been the beneficiary of such bountiful service. If Coleman, Tim O’Mahony and the likes are being mandated to hit low ball into the corner, as they did to great effect against Dublin, surely it’s Hoggy you want at the receiving end?
The draw hasn’t been kind to us, maybe that’s no harm either. Perhaps there’s no better time to play Tipp than next weekend when their ducks aren’t yet in a row. Much like ourselves last weekend, Tipp will be hurting after their non-performance the first day out and much like ourselves, they’ve questions to answer. Clutching at straws? Yeah, probably. We’d have relished the opportunity to get one over on Davy’s Wexford and we’d certainly have fancied our chances against Tony Kelly and his rabble of faceless minions. Hopefully, we still get that chance further down the line.
So far, this season has followed a similar trajectory to that of 2019. A listless defeat in the opening game, a raft of subsequent team changes and then a gutsy showing born no doubt from a week of stinging appraisals, both inside and outside the camp. Last season petered out fairly tepidly however, that shock win at Gaelic Grounds proving no more than an aberration. So we’ll keep our powder dry for now. Tipp are no Dublin and one swallow doesn’t make a summer. One performance won’t make our winter.