Systems and sweepers don’t interest Pat Hartnett. He’s a purist. Or at least that’s what he is selling.
The Cork selector gives you the impression he’s the last man you’ll find drawing on a whiteboard in the Cork dressing-room on match-day. His concern is with first-touch, striking, fetching, tackling.
The basics, as he calls them. It is a word he’ll repeat seven times during the course of our chat.
This time 12 months ago, Cork hurling was in cold storage. Damien Cahalane, Patrick Horgan and the likes were back hurling with their clubs as Galway, Tipperary, Waterford and Kilkenny got down to the serious business of deciding who took ownership of Liam MacCarthy for the winter. Cork hurling, to a large extent, was irrelevant.
Hartnett says there’s been no reinventing of the wheel. Rather, there has been an emphasis — and mastering — of the basics.
“Look at our tackle count, look at our free count. Like medicine or dentistry, you’ve got to practice. There is no magic formula or system,” Hartnett stresses.
“A fella who is in the game, on average, will have 25 possessions. That’s factual. A fella who is out of the game will have around 10 possessions. There is very, very little room for error when a player is in possession. Natural ability must be there. The touch must be there. That comes back to the purity of hurling. To date, the lads have performed well under pressure. Their basic hurling is really good. We didn’t give them that. They brought that with them. Their natural athleticism and their natural hurling, that’s their own capital.
“They have the hand-eye coordination and then you embellish it. The coaching has been excellent. The physical conditioning is there to be seen. They are doing themselves justice.”
Where else they are doing themselves justice is the pressure they are applying on opposition defences. In all three of the Munster championship games, Damien Cahalane and Mark Coleman were on the receiving end of numerous short puck-outs from Anthony Nash.
On Munster final afternoon, it made for a constant supply of quality ball into Alan Cadogan and Patrick Horgan. There was no such cleancut distribution travelling in the other direction.
“You want to get contaminated ball coming out of the opposition back-line. You don’t want to give someone pure crystal ball where we can pick someone out. If I give you 10 seconds to hit the ball, you can cherry pick where you want to deliver it. So the forwards need to put the backs under pressure so that ball is contaminated coming out, in other words, he is not giving the ball he wants to give. That has a knock-on effect on everything. We know there are between 32 and 38 puck-outs per game. So, we can control those if we are delivering them. The way we set up, we will try to minimise them from their puck-outs.
“It is a huge area of the game. There are 70 puck-outs per game. That is one a minute. It has a big bearing on things.”
Hartnett is reluctant to make comparisons between Cork 2016 and Cork 2017. But March 5 in Nowlan Park stands out in his mind as an afternoon where the first signs were shown of what we have been treated to all summer by Kingston’s players.
The second-half didn’t exactly go to plan, with Cork falling to Kilkenny by 0-22 to 0-15. Their hurling in the opening period – they trailed by 0-11 to 0-10 at the break – was hugely encouraging, though.
“People thought we capitulated that day. I don’t think so. I keep going back to that game.
“I was a minor selector two years ago. Kieran’s son, Shane, was captain. We knew they were good lads who had really, good ability. The senior guys, then, have really responded. They are the unsung heroes. Bill Cooper has been absolutely phenomenal to us. He normally plays in the half-forward line but has gone into midfield. The full-back line has been superb. Mark Ellis is the silent man, he is lording it. Joyce has been excellent. Horgan has been on fire. Lehane, Harnedy, they are producing it.”
Going back to that particular afternoon in Kilkenny, Cork didn’t raise a green flag.
They engineered just two throughout their Munster campaign. A worry?
“We had three goal chances against Waterford and we didn’t take them. It was 0-11 all at half-time. We need to take those, especially at the business end. It is self-fulfilling. It lifts everyone. You must take the opportunities when they come.”
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