Leaders have emerged for the Rebels this championship season, writes Kieran Shannon

On the eve of the seismic all-Ulster All Ireland football final of 2003, Mickey Harte found himself looking for a pen on the team bus down to Dublin after coming across the respective team pics in one of the morning newspapers.

A common narrative in the lead up to the game was Armagh’s physical supremacy. If they weren’t bullying or blowing aside opponents, they were at the very least wearing them down. Ultimately all those hits told and took a toll. The last 15 minutes of a game was invariably orange. Armagh were simply too strong and too big for everyone else.

To ensure his players didn’t follow and fall for that script, Harte addressed it head on. The pen pics in that morning’s papers included the height and weight of each player. After doing his various calculations, he discovered that on average an Armagh player weighed only seven ounces heavier than his Tyrone counterpart and wasn’t even an inch taller. At the team meeting later that night, Harte handed Philip Jordan a coffee granule that weighed exactly seven ounces. Was that a physical presence Jordan couldn’t deal with? Was that coffee granule going to stop him and his county winning their first ever senior All-Ireland final? Jordan’s smile and that of his teammates as he passed the granule around told Harte everything he needed and wanted to know.

Kieran Kingston could have done something similar ahead of last weekend’s showdown against Waterford in Thurles.

The general consensus was that Waterford were further along in their development, at least a year or two ahead of Cork. With five players having only made their championship debut the previous day, there was a sense that Cork couldn’t get away again with such a raw quintet of players. Jackie Tyrrell even suggested that some of the Waterford players should verbalise the gulf in experience between the sides, asking the likes of Luke Meade and Shane Kingston how they got on in Maths Paper One the other week.

The only thing is that a good few of the Waterford team weren’t that long after doing the Leaving themselves. The average age of their starting 15 last week was 25.1 years old. Cork’s was exactly six months younger: 24.6. As Harte — or, it’s very easy to picture, a Diarmuid O’Sullivan — might say, was six months on a birth cert going to stand between them and victory?

Plenty of Cork players could point out that it’s not as if they’ve jumped the queue here. Four of the seven eldest players following the parade last Sunday were in red — Anthony Nash (32), Bill Cooper, and Patrick Horgan (29), and Stephen McDonnell (28). Three years ago the same two counties met in the first round of the championship, also in Thurles, with Cork having played in the previous year’s All-Ireland final. The first day was a draw, best remembered for an Austin Gleeson goal on his debut. The second day, Cork won by double scores, 28 points to 14. All but two of Cork’s defence last Sunday also started in those two games. All but one of Cork’s attack last Sunday also started in those two games back in 2014. This isn’t Year One for them. For them it’s simply time.

If the win over Tipperary was rightly about the newcomers, this win over Waterford was about the veterans. The great basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski — or Coach K as he’s more commonly known as, for obvious reasons — has spoken about the importance of what he calls “internal leadership”. “You can take the best team and the runners up and you will find little physical difference. You will find an emotional difference.

“The winning team has a dedicated core group of players that set the standards. They will not accept defeat.” That is what won Kilkenny so many All-Irelands this century, the genius of Brian Cody being able to cultivate the environment for such internal leadership.

Contrary to how they’re popularly perceived as all talent, flawed character, it’s also what gave Tipperary the edge last year — men like Brendan and Paudie Maher had simply got to that point where they were not going to tolerate defeat or any teammate who might. This year’s championship, with Kilkenny no longer leading the way when it comes to leaders, is wide open, but Cork appear to have the cut of men willing to put their hand up on that score.

We’re thinking primarily of Conor Lehane. He may still be only 24 but this is seventh year starting championship hurling with Cork. Patrick Horgan is now in his 10th year.

Anthony Nash is in his 13th on the panel. In that time they’ve come within seconds of winning an All-Ireland, then suffered the heartbreak of losing the replay and the humiliation of heavier or more ignominious defeats in Croke Park and Thurles. Damian Cahalane wasn’t there in 2013 but he’s been there ever since and been through enough torment and ridicule to last a lifetime. Everything about their play this summer screams: Enough. Our time now.

Management seem aware of it. Tapped into it, encouraged it, facilitated it. Some columnists have argued that too much can be made of the management and a backroom members like Gary Keegan, forgetting that there’s an art as well as a humility to having the players lead.

The turning point in the boxing high performance team was after the first qualifying tournament for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Only one fighter, Paddy Barnes, had qualified when they’d expect at least a couple of more. A meeting of the coaching and support staff identified the crux of the underachievement: they had been creating decision-followers, not decision-makers. “We’d over-coached the boys,” Billy Walsh would say some time after he’d gone to Beijing with six fighters and come back with three of them having medalled.

“Kenny Egan had got to the stage where he was standing there between rounds, waiting for me to call out the instructions what punches to throw.”

This summer in Thurles the Cork management have been all back out on the touchline for the second half while the players have still been inside the dressing room.

No one else is telling them what punches to throw. Their internal leaders are deciding that among and for themselves.


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