Their facial expressions were the equivalent of an audible gasp, and as one giant after another passed by, the words finally came. “Christ, they have some big men in that part of the country.”
It was only accurate to a point though. The truth is, t it’s something they’ve been working on ever since Kieran McGeeney rode into town. Little wonder then, that back when they were pummelling Offaly in their Leinster opener, a journalist in the press box who’d covered plenty of oval ball action noted that Peter Kelly was like a rugby centre. And he’s only the corner-back, a position where clingy and quick were once the key attributes.
Tomorrow though, for the first time this year, they pick on someone their own size. In fact Cork are probably the only team that are their size after Kildare have spent each and every off-season working away in the weights facility they own in the K Club. Many golfers have gone to the bar to report strange goings on after seeing groups of players pushing heavy objects around the car park for hours each January. But as one player noted this week, “I’d know guys involved in weights that are the same visible size as the lads, able to shift as much weight but not able to run.”
It’s that balance they’ve struck that has been key to their steam rolling of sides.
Now though they meet the pioneers of the theory that size matters and a good big one is better than a good small one. Look at it this way, Aidan O’Connell is Cork’s fitness coach and his links with Munster rugby are strong and its effect on the team obvious. Since the start of the year, PJ Wilson has been his understudy and he too has been involved heavily with the Munster academy. On top of that, in the Conor Counihan regime, players coming through from younger grades are expected to be of a certain physical size. Aidan Walsh and Ciarán Sheehan were naturally big and allowed the manager build on their frames and them to make it quickly. Contrast that with a player like Mark Collins, an excellent centre half-forward on the 2009 U21-winning team. His skill has kept him around but his size has kept him back and after training sessions this year he was taken over to the sideline for extra weights work. Talent is not enough.
If size and physical strength are the attributes Cork and Kildare have in common, how and when they went down that road sees a parallel forming too. When the sides clashed in the quarter-final of 2008, both Counihan and McGeeney were in their first season and were stuck with players from previous eras. But both were about to begin a new era, not just in their counties, but in football. Kildare’s corner-backs that day were Morgan O’Flaherty and Aindriú MacLochlainn, this season they’ve had Hugh McGrillen and Peter Kelly. There’s no comparison, just as there isn’t at full-forward where Ken Donnelly was four year’s ago but Tomás O’Connor is tomorrow.
Meanwhile Brian O’Regan and Killian O’Connor were dispensed with along with most of the Cork back division and replaced with a much bigger unit.
Much of it goes back to boxing. After their 2008 exit McGeeney came up with the idea of a white-collar tournament, telling players that just like out on the field, a one-on-one battle about courage and confidence. Around that same time Noel O’Leary and Michael Shields were heading to Rylane Boxing Club to hibernate for the winter and it’s something the entire Cork team have bought into since.
Interestingly, after losses to Kerry in 2009 and Mayo in 2011, it was their first port of call. Once there, nothing stopped them. There are no showers yet players drove home over an hour covered in sweat. When the generator failed at one training session, they took out mobile phones to light the gym rather than call it a night. So even when building spirit, they were building muscle, to the extent Fintan Goold looks small compared to those around him yet stands 6’1 and broad.
Of course it’s about creating footballers as well as athletes, and that aspect has seen Alan O’Connor learn to foot pass, Pearse O’Neill learn to kick a point rather than fist a point, Hugh McGrillen become a far better reader of the game and Emmet Bolton turn into perhaps the premier attacking wing-back in the game.
But it’s the size you’ll notice first as these are no counties for small men.