Last year’s loss to Tipperary saw Cork record their joint second lowest championship score in 20 years, their 0-13 total emulating their paltry total against Clare in the 1998 Munster opening round and the 1999 All-Ireland final winning tally. Twelve months on, and in beating Tipperary, the Rebels hit 2-27, their joint highest SHC tally in five years, replicating the 2012 qualifier total against Wexford.
Last year, we mentioned the irony of Diarmuid O’Sullivan being part of a management team that advocated the use of a sweeper when he himself had criticised it as a punter in 2015 while watching the Galway-Tipperary All-Ireland semi-final.
He tweeted: “@officialgaa outlaw the sweeper system with immediate effect so we can have game’s (sic) like this every week”.
An extra defender has proven to work but Cork have illustrated they are one team who operate better when they stick to their traditions. Being able to recognise they were wrong is an essential part of management.
In the end, Cork went over 305 minutes without a championship goal, a gap that began with Seamus Harnedy’s strike against Wexford in their 2015 first round qualifier and ending at the same stage last year when Alan Cadogan found the net in the win over Dublin. Cork aren’t exactly busting the net this year but they’re at least averaging one per game.
Whereas teams like Tipperary, Dublin and Wexford last year were happy to take their points against Cork, it’s Kieran Kingston’s side who now appear to be happy to snipe scores.
Excluding goals, they’re averaging a considerable 25 points a game. Of those 75 points, less than 31% have come from placed balls.
Last year, that proportion was almost 34%.
Earlier this week, Mark Ellis spoke about the importance of beating Tipperary in Páirc Uí Rinn in March.
“We beat Tipp in a good game in Páirc Uí Rinn,” he said. “We conceded three goals and scored none but still won so we knew by that game we had a real chance.”
Before ending a run of four SHC defeats to their great rivals, that victory in Ballintemple was their first in league or championship against Tipperary in six outings. It also marked the first set of back-to-back season wins over Tipp since 2010. Beating the All-Ireland champions twice can only have increased confidence in the camp.
After last season, it would have been quite easy for Damien Cahalane to consider a return to the footballers.
No inter-county player in Cork has been as maligned, unjustifiably so most of the time, than the 25-year-old.
As a dual player, it was felt that he, like Aidan Walsh, was spreading himself too thin. Walsh opted to quit hurling for football at the end of 2016 and could hardly be blamed when it was obvious things didn’t work out for him under Jimmy Barry-Murphy and then Kieran Kingston. Cahalane, though, chose to stick it out and has been a standout performer.
Part of the problem for Cork last year was the lack of young blood. Killian Burke and John Cronin did start the qualifier against Dublin but only after a more established side were seen off by Tipperary. Shane Kingston came on in the Dublin and Wexford qualifiers while Mark Coleman was also introduced in the latter affair but it’s this year that youth has been truly embraced with SHC starting debuts for Coleman, Fitzgibbon, Kingston, Colm Spillane, and Luke Meade in Thurles back in May.
Spillane is not just a prime example of how Cork have improved under the dropping ball but also typifies the effective aggression that Kingston’s side have brought to their game this year. Bill Cooper — that shoulder on Kevin Moran in the Munster semi-final the case in point — and Cahalane are amongst others who have exemplified this mindset. Selector O’Sullivan has spoken at the start of last season about the need to pass on “the dark arts” to players and there is certainly more of a cuteness in how Cork try to foil opponents. At the same time, it’s not in Cork’s nature to bully — but they won’t be bullied either.
Sixteen months ago, we mentioned that the loss to Tipp was the eighth time in 30 championship matches since 2010 that Cork failed to hit the 20-point marker and now, after five further SHC games, it remains eight.
Only twice since last May have Cork not managed to score 20 points or more — the league defeats to Dublin and Kilkenny.
During the 2015 All-Stars in Austin, Texas, Pa Horgan spoke of Cork’s need to up their conditioning to absorb what Kilkenny were throwing at teams. It appeared, at least on the basis of what was seen in games, that the obvious skill this Cork team are blessed with may have taken a backseat to those efforts the spring before last.
Cork may point back to that period as one of necessity but the balance between strength and skill looks much better now. The elusiveness and coolness of the likes of Coleman and Meade is neatly complemented by what Cahalane and Cooper demonstrate. There’s also a notable improvement in how Cork forwards like Horgan are working to win back possession.