The beauty of the league is often in the eye of the beholder, insofar as it can be whatever you want it to be. Even more so this time around. After two wins, two defeats and one draw, there’s ample evidence to support a broad spectrum of canopied beer-garden opinion between now and July 3rd. But what do we really know? Even in those halcyon days of crowds, white sliothars, the advantage rule and all of hurling’s other appendages that we had once taken for granted, “it’s only the league” was a popular refrain espoused by hurling supporters on Leeside, a cautionary negation of any early-season promise or a tenuous plea for optimism amid Springtime defeats. In the wake of the leagueiest league that has ever leagued, it is worth prefacing this piece by admitting that I haven’t a clue. And neither do you.
What we do know is that we probably won’t win the All-Ireland. By the same token, we will probably have too much for at least one third of the field should we cross paths over the coming weeks. Slap bang in the middle of the road, where we’ve resided now for as long as I care to remember. We might give Limerick a good rattle up in Thurles. We might also be beat out the gate. That’s just Cork hurling for you these days, a world where you just never know for certain and there’s no point pretending otherwise. With all that in mind, it’s best to remain firmly planted atop the fence for now. A bit of a cop-out I know but what can you do.
After 34 players were used throughout the five-game league, it is viewed in most quarters that we are a team ‘in transition’. Once again. Has a team ever transitioned so much while remaining so perpetually stagnant? A transition into genuine All-Ireland contenders would be nice for once. It’s too soon to question whether the current iteration is capable of taking that next step and irrespective of what happens against Limerick, the full extent of what is achievable won’t become evident until next season. In that regard, a championship without crowds acts as an ideal setting for a young crop of players ironing out the kinks in new system of play, free from the reproach of those on the bank and the guttural roars to hit the ball in long.
Although perhaps I’m being overly pessimistic in completely disregarding our hopes of silverware this summer. Four years ago, Kieran Kingston handed maiden championship starts to five players – Colm Spillane, Mark Coleman, Darragh Fitzgibbon, Luke Meade and Shane Kingston – as Cork entered into their Munster opener against reigning All-Ireland champions as rank outsiders. Another championship debutant Michael Cahalane made the all-important difference from the bench. Cork won by four and an unlikely provincial crown soon followed. It is worth remembering that a Seamús Callanan inspired Tipperary had blitzed Kilkenny in the previous year’s All-Ireland final and were hotly tipped to regain their crown. Cork’s 4/1 odds reflected as much.
What I’m trying to get at here is that next weekend, much like four years ago, it is not inconceivable that a host of players could make their first championship starts against the current All-Ireland champions. Ger Mellerick, Billy Hennessy, Conor Cahalane, Shane Barrett and Alan Connolly are all in contention, while Pa Collins is nailed-on to start between the sticks (While we’re at it, Donal Óg made his championship debut back in ’99 alongside four other debutants too, just saying). Does any of this have any relevance on the Limerick game? Probably not, but look if you can’t extract slivers of hope from largely tangential past glories then what are you left with? We’ll take what we can, when we can.
Apart from the unfortunate Spillane, who has been ravaged by injury for much of the past three years, the other four that came in against Tipp in 2017 are now all definite starters. In Shane Kingston’s case, a break-out season – a row of games where he delivers on his undoubted potential over the entirety of the seventy minutes – is absolutely imperative if Cork are to have any hope of progressing their season into August. Hoggy has been on the wrong side of thirty now for a number of years while Seamús Harnedy’s influence on the team is evidently on the wane. A new face is needed now to carry the significant scoring burden. In what will be Kingston’s fifth season of involvement with the Cork seniors, and to sanitise the popular idiom, I’m afraid it’s time to step-up or get off the pot.
Mark Coleman, who like Kingston came into the side at the back end of an abject 2016, has had no such problems in becoming a permanent fixture in the starting fifteen. Despite reveling in his role as sweeper last year, he has played most of the league campaign at No. 6. His redeployment echoes what Jackie Tyrrell recently wrote about the evolution of the centre-back position, noting how the days of the static, barrel-chested master of the skies has become redundant, in favour of a “fluid, silky, roving player who glides around receiving ball and passes and creates attacks”. Sound familiar? Coleman encapsulated isn’t it. The Blarney man isn’t without fault however and requires a compact structure around him if he’s to flourish in his new role. Cian Lynch roamed the Gaelic Grounds with impunity a few weeks ago while Conor Whelan’s first goal for Galway highlighted Coleman’s discomfort with a man-marking detail. The job description for a centre-back may continue to evolve, but the basic defensive tenets will always remain the same.
Defensive frailties notwithstanding, Coleman will act as the fulcrum of Cork’s distinctive, short-passing game. It’s like the good old days, with purists once again aghast at our debasement of hurling’s code of ethics, or what O’Grady would euphemistically describe as the “optimal use of possession”. However, almost twenty years on from the original rendering of what invariably became known as ‘Cork’s running game’ and the current tiki-taka (or is it tippy-tappa?) approach to hurling makes O’Grady’s previous regiment look like Poc Fada contestants traipsing o’er the Cooley Mountains. A high-wire act no doubt and one which will become all the more perilous at championship altitude. As the saying goes though, needs must when the Devil drives, the Devil as always being the lack of ball-winners in the forward division. Sure, attempting to intricately navigate the sliothar through a mass of Limerick bodies might be asking for trouble, but is it any less hazardous than piling ball down on top of Byrnes, Hannon, Hayes or whatever other gargantuan half-backs they have in stock.
From an attacking point of view, the proof is in the pudding. Yeah, we do goals now. 18 over the course of five league games is a fair haul in any man’s language, even when countenancing the fact that seven of them came against Westmeath and another three were pilfered in garbage-time of the Waterford game. Still though, it’s worth noting that this year’s tally matches the number of goals totalled in the twenty regulation league games played between 2016 and 2019. Among the goal-getters has been Jack O’Connor, who up until now hasn’t exactly been pulling up trees with Cork. Well so far this year, he’s notched 4-3 against three of the heavy-hitters, namely Limerick, Galway and Waterford. Matching Limerick’s ‘death by points’ style of execution may be beyond us at present, so you’d imagine a bundle of green flags will be required next Sunday. No pressure then Jack.
So another against-all-odds victory for Cork’s youngsters it is then, inspired by the indomitable Mark Coleman in defence, the irrepressible stickwork and support play through the middle and the irresistible goal-machines Kingston and O’Connor in attack. A performance that will light the touch paper for a summer of glorious sunshine and a long-awaited Rebel renaissance to mark the definitive end to a miserable eighteen months. Or a comfortable win for Limerick and another season of despair. As I said from the outset, who knows. For when it comes to the Cork hurlers, the prediction game only tends to makes fools of us all.