Cork laboured for the entire first-half trying to figure out what they were all about. They went in at the interval on level terms with a Westmeath team that were clearly not up to much themselves. Westmeath flattered themselves by going ahead within a minute of the restart but then went 25 minutes without a score from play until John Heslin, at that stage restored to his natural habitat at midfield, scored a decent long range effort.
By now Cork had gone on a scoring burst and were out of sight. Whereas in the first-half players in red jerseys insisted on running into cul de sacs, they were now popping passes off the shoulder to colleagues with more momentum and better angles of running.
While that was good enough to see off Westmeath, and might just be good enough to beat Kildare tomorrow, you get the sense that unless some of these Cork lads cut loose and stop playing to a prescribed template, they are going to meet the 2013 version of themselves again at the end of spring.
Take Mark Collins, for example. This time last year Cork toyed with the idea of making Collins their de facto sweeper behind the half-back line and for a few games, particularly against Tyrone and Donegal, it looked like it might just work.
Then came the low point of the year for Gaelic football spectators in Munster — the league derby against Kerry in Tralee in late March. This was a Kerry team who, at the time, couldn’t buy a score and here you had Collins, possibly Cork’s busiest and most creative player, retreating behind his half-back line from the throw-in to settle down to afternoon’s spoiling. It was dispiriting stuff and did little to establish Collins’ credentials on the Cork team. There were indications last weekend Collins’ game has evolved to the point where he is now comfortable when contesting the kickouts that all half-forwards need to win at times during a game.
After kicking a fine point off his left 10 minutes into the second-half he caught the next kickout and then, a few minutes later, he was at it again, catching another Westmeath kickout and this time feeding Aidan Walsh for a good score. He followed this up with another assist for a James Loughrey score.
He spent the next few minutes back on his own 21 yard line again, trying to link play out of defence and not really succeeding. The point is that Collins is one of the most imaginative players on a team that sometimes lacks imagination. Not only that, but the black card changes, specifically the sanction relating to deliberate body collisions, would suit his positioning closer to goal.
In Daniel Goulding, Brian Hurley and Donal Óg Hodnett, Cork have one of the most potent full-forward lines in Division 1 this weekend, but that trio would be lot more dangerous tomorrow if they were in closer contact with the likes of Collins. With Aidan Walsh off with the hurlers, the need for supporting runs is that bit greater.
Kildare come to Páirc Uí Rinn tomorrow full of enthusiasm and spring hope after a gluttonous scorefest in Newbridge last Sunday. It might be wishful thinking to look at the sense of adventure and freedom evident in the Mayo game as a sign of things to come, but there was much to admire about the way Kildare went about their business in the closing minutes.
Tommy Moolick got his hands on a few important kickouts, Kevin Murnaghan and Fergal Conway became more energetic as the game reached its frantic denouement and there was also the languid brilliance of Paddy Brophy’s winner to savour.
More than once last season, Kieran McGeeney predicted these players would eventually deliver but the likelihood of him being around to see them blossom diminished as spring became summer and the year moved to its brutal conclusion.
Conway was a dynamic centre-back on last year’s U21 team, but Moolick and Brophy were criticised when things went pear-shaped in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final against Galway. Maybe we had forgotten how young they were and also how impetuous other youngsters like Sean Hurley were ten months ago.
For all the nourishment the cubs will have taken from last Sunday’s win, there was an awful lot of DVD analysis to keep the Kildare management and players honest this week.
It was there in the four clear goal chances that Kildare coughed up in the first-half alone, when Aidan O’Shea (twice), Cathal Carolan and Lee Keegan failed to find the net. Kildare’s good fortune didn’t survive into the second-half and their vulnerability through the centre was exposed within seven minutes of the restart. In three crazy minutes Mayo scored two goals to draw level from a six- point deficit. Another worry for Kildare is their predictable tendency to target Sean Hurley from kickouts when pressure is applied elsewhere. A lack of variety and security on their own kickout proved to be Kildare’s downfall in bigger games in 2013 and it would be a great concern if that issue can’t be rectified.
Six wins on the trot can immunise those within the bubble to such concerns but a hungrier Cork team with a good sprinkling of players with, as Brian Cuthbert said, a history “of beating teams growing up” could be enough to ensure Cork continue their development with two more league points.
Not that anyone should notice ... right?