Cork revel in rankings reversal

This time last year Cork were staring at a toothless exit from the hurling championship.

They had tried to play a sweeper system against Tipperary, a ploy which put the mal in malfunction, as the Premier eased to a nine-point win. A first championship defeat against Wexford in six decades soon followed which was even more depressing for supporters in red. A nadir was officially declared.

The situation was very different in Waterford 12 months ago. As July approached they had a Munster final on the horizon, and though Tipperary beat them heavily in that game, two epic performances against Kilkenny followed in the All-Ireland semi-final and replay.

Those games rescued the inter-county hurling season - for everyone - and established Waterford on the shortlist of 2017 All-Ireland contenders.

Now those rankings have turned around. Cork - and Wexford in Leinster - are viewed as the fresh breezes revitalising the hurling championship, while Waterford are seen as a wounded beast with the qualifiers looming.

It’s interesting to contrast the fortunes of the two managers over those 12 months.

Kieran Kingston and his management team got plenty of criticism in the wake of that defeat by Tipperary in particular - in large part because deploying an extra body between the defensive lines was seen as anathema to the Cork way of playing.

The narrative being widely circulated at present centres on the men in red casting off their tactical inhibitions and freeing their inner Corkness, as though that were physically manifest, like the Numbskulls of the Beano comic long ago - little avatars of the blood and bandage that only needed to be given their head for success to follow.

Strangely enough, there seems to be little recognition of Cork’s tactical makeover in that narrative.

The winners on Sunday traded on a recognised template of withdrawing players into their own half, or their own two-thirds of the field, and then breaking upfield at pace to punish the opposition (to be fair, Derek McGrath sketched that precise strategy out for hacks an hour after the final whistle last Sunday).

To do that properly, however, a certain type of player is needed: quick, athletic and capable of playing with his head up.

The premium is on quality delivery to the player further upfield, whether he’s 10 metres away or 70.

When Kingston and his management team found the players in Cork who suited those roles they seemed too young, really, for senior intercounty fare.

However, Luke Meade, Shane Kingston, Darragh Fitzgibbon and Mark Coleman have assimilated seamlessly into that game plan. Perhaps that’s what “Corkness” really is - for managers. Pitching them in whatever age they are.

By contrast, Derek McGrath’s summer now looks far more challenging. Last summer Waterford were in the black, with a league title banked from 2015 and two fine league finals played against Clare in the spring.

They led Kilkenny in Croke Park with time running out in the All-Ireland semi-final, only for Walter Walsh’s goal to give the Cats a lifeline. That game went to an epic replay in Semple Stadium, and though they lost, Waterford were felt to be close to the breakthrough.

McGrath himself disagreed earlier this year. “It’s as far away as it ever was in my opinion,” he said of Waterford’s chances of making it back to that stage of the All-Ireland series.

“Brian Cody came into the dressing room last year, and he wasn’t one bit patronising and he spoke about how hard it is to get back to a semi-final and that’s why Kilkenny are as sharp as they are every year.”

The neatness of the parallels, with Kingston’s regime now seen as in the ascendancy in much the same way as McGrath’s was last year, overshadows some of the other dynamics at play.

McGrath, for instance, has been criticised within his own county by those who want Waterford to replicate their successful U21s’ approach at senior level, even though it’s not a like for like comparison (see Tom Kenny in last weekend’s Examiner: “He (McGrath) may be under pressure because of the way Waterford won the U21 title last year.

They had an attacking style, it was easy on the eye, there was a fluency and an energy there — but bringing that through to senior is more difficult than people realise.”)

By Sunday evening there were even flickers of social media criticism of McGrath for co-operating with the GAA Nua documentary on RTÉ One, on the use of technology in Gaelic games - even though no serious inter-county side with All-Ireland ambitions ignores the advantages that science and technology offer.

By contrast, there was little criticism of Kingston after Cork’s departure from the championship early last summer.

The widely-held perception was that Cork’s underage famine tied the manager’s hands and Rebel supporters had years of misery in their future, and that there wasn’t a long list of ready-made replacements who would change that narrative anytime soon.

Now the two men have all but switched seats. However, both will be aware how quickly stocks can rise or fall.

Kingston’s Cork face a serious Clare side in the Munster final - one with the advantage of a championship outing under their belts, which Waterford didn’t have before Sunday. McGrath’s side enter the qualifier draw and could end up in Kilkenny - or they could pick up a routine win and get their season back on track.

Swings and roundabouts. Kingston and McGrath could tell you a lot about those.

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