Strain begins to show as Rebel hurlers lose power

Eamonn Fitzmaurice, the new Kerry football manager, recently gave an interesting interview in which he discussed conditioning and physical strength in Gaelicfootball, saying underage players from Cork and Dublin, in particular, were more physically advanced than those from Kerry.

Fitzmaurice was referring to Gaelic football — Cork’s annihilation of the Kingdom in last year’s U21 provincial final may have been his main case study — but that clarification was hardly necessary. Cork’s hurlers have not been bossing games physically since the middle of the last decade.

The obvious point of comparison would be manager Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s first period in charge, 1996-2000, when Clare set a physical template that other counties aspired to. At that time Barry-Murphy — badgered all over Cork to pick big, strong men — stuck with speedy ball-players and won the 1999 All-Ireland.

In retrospect though, we may have all overlooked the fact that Cork fielded a defence with five six-footers out of six that day.

The Kilkenny team Cork beat that day have, with various additions and subtractions in personnel, dominated hurling since, with an awesome brand of skill, aggression and power. Though any team with Tommy Walsh, Henry Shefflin and Richie Power would have to be commended on its skill levels, Kilkenny have a team which is physically powerful enough to dictate the terms of engagement any time they take the field — Shefflin and Power, for instance, are over 6ft tall and well able to win their own ball no matter how it comes to them.

By contrast, Cork’s physicality — apologies to lovers of the English language for that term — does not seem to be in the same league.

It’s not just Kilkenny, either. In Tipperary, Padraic Maher was full-back in an All-Ireland final at 19 and his contemporary Brendan Maher played midfield the same day. Galway’s Niall Burke and Johnny Coen, both U21s, have also proved their physical credentials in the toughest of crucibles, the big showdown in September this year.

This notion of physical inadequacy is of a piece with a general unhappiness in the Rebel County with how Cork have slipped in the hurling rankings. For instance, the day is fast approaching when Cork send out a senior team with no All-Ireland senior medallist in their ranks; when that day comes there will be no minor or U21 All-Ireland medallist in red and white either, a stark example of the county’s decline as an underage force.

However, there are more pressing concerns, one of which is internal dissatisfaction within the Cork camp relating to the physical conditioning of the players, a live issue when one considers the 2013 absences.

One of the few younger players with on-field presence, Darren Sweetnam, has gone to play rugby with Munster while potential dual stars Aidan Walsh and Ciarán Sheehan are committed to Gaelic football. Actual dual star Eoin Cadogan’s ability to continue with both codes is a perennial challenge, while Damien Cahalane’s form with Castlehaven will surely make him a target for Conor Counihan’s football squad. The future of two of the physically stronger veterans, John Gardiner and Niall McCarthy, is in serious doubt ahead of 2013 and Seán Óg Ó hAilpín, another physically imposing specimen, has retired.

That removes a good deal of the physical edge from the squad and relationships within the camp are strained ahead of what could be a testing season without strong, imposing players in the line-up.

Clues to that strain have been visiblerecently. In his retirement statement Ó hAilpín thanked the coaches and management he’d worked with while playing for Cork, but it was dutiful. Businesslike. No names mentioned, a significant omission according to conspiracy theorists on Leeside.

Such Kremlinologists have also pointed to the mixed messages regarding Gardiner and McCarthy exiting the fold, and the uncertainty as to whether those departures are permanent or temporary. Those reading that uncertainty as indicative of tensions within the camp will feel their presumptions strengthened by suggestions that Donal Óg Cusack will be third in line for a start next year.

The key to the current froideur within the camp is the fact that the players’ physical strength came up for discussion internally following the defeat to Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final. It was striking that day that Cork were forced to move Patrick Cronin from midfield to the full-forward line as they hunted a goal, with few of the starting forwards possessing the physical strength to win or hold the ball up near goal.

Four of them were substituted before the end. There’ll be a keen focus on physical trainer Dave Matthews’ plans to improve the players’ strength in combat for next year.

Resolving internal tensions will be difficult, given recent events in Cork. As pointed out in Teddy McCarthy’s recently-published autobiography, the wounds from the last hurling strike remain raw, with many nursing grievances still.

Accordingly, actions that in other counties would be seen as purely game-based or result-oriented are always parsed in Cork for a retrospective significance, harking back to the battles of the past.

Rightly or wrongly, any decisions taken by players or management on Leeside in the weeks and months ahead will be seen in the same way.


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