Are these Cork players really playing for the management?

My first championship match as Clare manager in 2004 was my ultimate nightmare. We went into the match as hot favourites but Waterford annihilated us.

It was embarrassing on the line that afternoon in Thurles. Humiliating. I didn’t know where to turn afterwards but I knew there was only one way out of that hole.

“It’s fight or flight now,” I texted all the players that night. And it had to be the ultimate fight if I, and the players, were to reclaim what Waterford had taken from us that day.

We ended that summer in Thurles over three months later, narrowly losing an All-Ireland quarter-final replay against Kilkenny. 

The following two years of my term saw us go deeper into the summer, where we took Cork and Kilkenny to the wire in successive All-Ireland semi-finals.

We could have won the All-Ireland in both of those seasons but the starting point on each of those journeys wasn’t how we had planned it either. 

It is one of my regrets as Clare manager that I never won a match in Munster and, while at least we fought the fight in 2005 and 2006, we still lost our opening games to Tipperary and Cork by six points in both of those seasons.

The difference back then though, was that we had an age to regroup. We had a seven-week break after we lost to Waterford in 2004 to when we played Laois in the first round of the qualifiers. It was far too long to stew and to try and piece the jigsaw back together but the timeframe is so short now that your planning is calibrated in hours, not weeks.

The other test for the four teams which lost last weekend — Cork, Waterford, Dublin and Carlow — is that the statistics from last year have shown that teams which lose invariably don’t win their next match when that game is a week later. The heat is ramped up even more now given that all four teams’ seasons are effectively on the line.

Two defeats won’t necessarily mean automatic elimination when there is still four points to play for but head-to-heads are bound to come into play this year. 

The pressure is dialled up even more when context and the opposition are also taken into consideration; Waterford are facing a Tipperary team juiced up on good vibes; Cork are playing Limerick in their opening match in front of a home crowd keen to stage a big welcoming party for the All-Ireland champions; Dublin are at home but Wexford have been preparing for this game for months, and had a chance to look at Dublin last weekend; and Carlow are facing Kilkenny — enough said.

Back in the old days — and you only have to go back to 2017 — you had the time to regroup but you were also nearly guaranteed a handy first qualifier match. Now, you’re straight into the bearpit and it’s effectively knockout stuff from now on. It’s fight or flight.

Dublin find themselves in exactly the same position they were this time last year, where if they lose to Wexford tomorrow, their season could be effectively done.

They know the perils of what’s at stake and so do Waterford, who also lost their opening game last year and this season. 

Shane Kingston
Shane Kingston

It’s a new experience for Cork but having to go to the home of the All-Ireland champions with their summer on the line must be like getting a wake-up call from a bolt of electricity.

Cork didn’t play at all last weekend. They shipped 2-28 but it could have been far worse, which has heaped more question marks on their defence. 

Losing at home made the pain harder to swallow, which was similar for Waterford, who also have to travel away tomorrow. 

Dublin at least have the comfort of Parnell Park but they will need the supporters to come out and back them, and turn the place into the fortress they need it to be with their backs to the wall again.

All three teams will have been hugely disappointed with their performances last weekend but Cork have the biggest cause for concern. The most worrying aspect was how poor their younger players were. 

Some of those guys, especially Darragh Fitzgibbon, Mark Coleman and Robbie O’Flynn, were carrying injuries earlier in the season. They have a lot of hurling already played for guys their age, especially Fitzgibbon who was playing for Charleville, and fitting in UCC, over the winter and early spring. 

That may have been a reason the trio were so flat against Tipperary but the whole team lacked such an edge six days ago that you’d wonder are these Cork players really playing for the management?

Any manager will always get a bounce in his first season. 

Cork won a Munster title under John Meyler last year. They could have won an All-Ireland too but you’d just wonder if they’re fully happy with the set-up? Kieran ‘Fraggy’ Murphy is a super guy. He’s a quality coach but is he carrying too heavy a workload in the set-up?

If modern players, especially young lads, don’t absolutely buy into a set up now, the cracks will soon appear. 

Mark Coleman
Mark Coleman

The other concern is are whether’s Cork’s young guys are as good, or will continue to progress, as everybody expects. Cork went into last year’s All-Ireland U21 final raging favourites and Tipperary turned them over. 

That wasn’t solely down to a handful of senior players but these guys are expected to be on another level, and to drive guys around them to that level. 

Jake Morris and Mark Kehoe were key players that afternoon last August but they’re not starting on the Tipp team, and aren’t the marquee players like Cork’s gifted core of Fitzgibbon, Coleman and Shane Kingston.

Cork will feel the pressure even more going into the lion’s den in Limerick but I still feel they have so much to play for if things don’t work out. If they lose tomorrow, they still have Waterford and Clare to come, both of which are games they will fancy winning. 

They won’t even be contemplating Clare in Ennis in mid-June but Cork will already have realised that Clare will be facing their third game in 14 days that afternoon.

A win or a draw tomorrow would be a huge lift to Cork’s morale but I don’t think they’ll come out of the Gaelic Grounds with anything. 

Limerick will be fresh and eager with this being their first game as defending All-Ireland champions but they will smell blood here too, and look at this as a glorious opportunity to get rid of a team that could yet could come back to haunt them later in the summer.

Waterford have to travel north tomorrow too but I think they’ll relish the chance to get back into Thurles and stretch their legs. I’ve never felt that Walsh Park suited this team and some of the performances last week almost confirmed that theory; Jamie Barron was taken off; Tommy Ryan, another speedster, was hardly seen when he came on.

I’d expect Waterford to be a lot sharper and better but they also need to get their tactical set-up clearer in their heads this week. 

Does Tadgh de Búrca sit back and let Conor Gleeson pick up ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer? Waterford eventually adopted that tactic on Tony Kelly last week but a lot of the damage had been done by the time they made the change.

Tipp look like a group on a mission but this is still a big test. Looking back at their league form, they struggled to put strong performances back to back; excellent against Clare, blown away by Limerick; brilliant against Cork but flat a week later against Dublin in the quarter-final.

Championship in Thurles will bring a whole different mentality but it’s also still probably too early to make a judgement on Tipp’s legs and the high mileage on so many of their clocks. 

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Liam Sheedy throw in some of the younger lads earlier tomorrow, just to freshen it up and to keep the older crew fresh for the long haul still ahead. But that road should be a little bit shorter if Tipp win, which I expect them to.

All year, I would have been predicting a Dublin win in Parnell Park, and, even after last weekend’s second-half collapse, I’ll stick with them. It won’t be easy but they’ll need so much more out of their attack; David Treacy, Eamonn Dillon, even Danny Sutcliffe, who got four points last Saturday. Liam Rushe’s injury is a huge concern but if he’s fit, and Dublin fire, I expect them to win.

Nobody expects Carlow to beat Kilkenny tomorrow in Dr Cullen Park, especially when Carlow’s impressive display against Galway last weekend will have placed Kilkenny even more on their guard. 

The beauty of the timing of this fixture too for Kilkenny is that they don’t have to rush back some of the guys out injured.

Kilkenny will get the win but it’s certainly the only banker of the weekend.

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