While Cork’s victory on Saturday may not have come as a surprise the gulf in class certainly was. Cork produced their best display of the year to add to the evidence that they are heading in the right direction.
Once Brian Hurley smashed home his second goal in the 43rd minute this game was over as a contest.
An evenly matched opening half hour left Cork just a point ahead but from then on in it was one-way traffic.
Ronan McCarthy’s side were outstanding for the remainder of the game playing with a swagger and class.
Rewind the clock back a week and the thought process after last Monday’s fourth-round qualifier draw was that both Cork and Laois couldn’t have asked for a kinder task when paired to face one another.
It was hardly an unwarranted slight on Cork given last year’s heavy championship defeats and this spring’s relegation to Division 3 of the National League but still worth noting all the same.
Cork’s final tally of 4-20 owes a lot to the individual brilliance of the Castlehaven duo of Brian Hurley and Mark Collins in the full forward line who between them bagged 3-12 but it was the side’s overall structure and attention to detail that most impressed.
One big question prior to the Munster final against Kerry related to the tactical approach Cork would employ. In Páirc Uí Chaoimh they were brave and adopted a high press, trusting their defenders to win individual battles. They were duly rewarded with an impressive display in a narrow loss.
On Saturday in Thurles the management again employed similar tactics with Cork tackling aggressively from the opposition 45 metre line.
Laois played an open brand of football, favouring the kick pass, but they lacked the athleticism to cause Cork serious problems. The defence as a whole deserve enormous credit but Kevin Flahive and James Loughrey should gain extra plaudits for limiting the damage of Laois’ dangerman Donie Kingston.
Cork’s centre-forward Seán White drifted back between Cork’s half-back line and midfield leaving space for Luke Connolly to drift out to operate as a link player.
Ruairí Deane generally hugged the left touchline while Kevin O’Driscoll was busy floating between half forward and midfield allowing Collins and Hurley space inside to do damage.
The positioning maximised the returns from each player’s skill set. White, an excellent reader of the game, dropped back to provide extra cover but his calmness in possession and foot passing ability were vital in Cork’s transition from defence to attack.
It was Deane and O’Driscoll, along with the midfield duo of Ian Maguire and Killian O’Hanlon who set the tempo in terms of aggression and tackling. The physicality and work rate of that quartet laid the foundation for a facile victory. Further forward Luke Connolly found things difficult with his own direct man marker along with the freed up centre-back Robert Piggott meaning the Nemo man was starved of possession.
A few missed frees added to his woes and the introduction of Paul Kerrigan at half-time bore fruit with the veteran hitting 1-1 and being influential in the crucial score just after half-time.
The highlight of the match, however, was the individual brilliance and combination play from the Haven duo inside. Both players possess a good burst of speed but crucially are also adept in the air.
Collins — one of the leading midfielders at club level — was exceptional.
The Laois fullback line had a torrid time as both players won ball out in front and overhead. The return of Hurley to his old self is a joy to behold. Injuries have halted his progress in recent years but the sharpness and spark is back.
One of the most pleasing aspects of Cork’s display was the variety to their play. The strong running play of Maguire, Deane and company was used to good effect but it was the kick passing to the inside duo that caused the most damage.
Granted Laois were naïve in leaving such talent isolated two v two inside but Cork played with their heads up around the middle and went direct when it was on.
Looking back to the comprehensive victory over Limerick in the Munster semi-final, the only aspect of Cork’s play which disappointed me was their efforts in defending their opponents kickouts.
Limerick’s defenders crowded around the middle and broke to the corners and wings for easy possession far too often. Kerry deployed similar tactics three weeks ago and enjoyed similar success.
Therefore I feared that goalkeeper Graham Brody would provide Laois with a solid platform and supply of possession. This wasn’t the case as Cork clearly had their homework done. Laois’ back six plus one of their wing forwards congested down the middle on the 45 metre line creating pockets of space to both sides.
From the very first kickout it was obvious Cork meant business as to a man they knew their roles and denied Brody an easy out ball.
This meant that more often than not he was forced to go long to a midfielder or wing forward running into space. Again Cork’s preparation and planning was evident here.
Both Liam O’Donovan and Mattie Taylor (who were excellent again on Saturday) were brave as they chased down and broke kickouts in Cork’s favour. Killian O’Hanlon (and later Ronan O’Toole) partnering Ian Maguire were tasked with competing for primary possession if Brody was forced to kick 50/50.
Indeed captain Maguire was again exemplary as he tore into Laois talisman John O’Loughlin breaking the majority in Cork’s favour. Bigger tests lie ahead facing the likes of Cluxton and Morgan but it is encouraging to see Cork progressing and targeting these small gains.
At the opposite end Cork keeper Mark White kept things simple with his kickouts. The vast majority went long to a contest with the short option only taken if gifted by Laois.
Similar to last year against Tipperary in Thurles Cork had four big targets to hit and concentrated on winning the breaking ball which they did in satisfactory numbers. A major concern for Cork’s management will be the injury sustained to Killian O’Hanlon following a high charge in the first half.
With Ronan O’Toole as Cork’s sole recognised midfielder on the bench, Cork may be forced into withdrawing Deane or O’Driscoll to midfield next Saturday which is hardly ideal given their familiarity and suitability to their current roles.
On the incident itself (and without having the luxury of television replays) the Laois player in question can consider himself lucky to have avoided a red card. O’Hanlon will do well to escape with just a bruising and would be a serious loss for next week’s trip to Croke Park.
Speaking of which, if you had asked me after relegation to Division 3 if getting to the Super 8s would be a good thing for Cork football, being honest I would have had some serious reservations.
However two comprehensive victories (accepting the inequalities of the championship structure) and one creditable defeat later and Cork can now look forward to the next month with great enthusiasm and hope.
Now the reality is that the upcoming experiences may be chastening at times but the progress that will be made individually and collectively will be invaluable.
Players get another month’s training in an elite environment, experience weekends away preparing for big games, exposure to the atmosphere for big games in Croke Park, a chance to learn and develop against the best teams and, most importantly, every player will be eager to return to the Cork setup next year with renewed vigour and pride in chasing success. Cork football is back at the top table, for July at least.
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