Rock: Cork’s new faces must embrace spotlight

Diarmuid O’Sullivan has been nothing if not consistent.

Rock: Cork’s new faces must embrace spotlight

Diarmuid O’Sullivan has been nothing if not consistent. Rake back over the ashes of Cork’s agonising All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Limerick last August and you’ll find the charred remains of newspaper clippings bearing the Rock’s name and his lamentations on the lack of depth in the Rebel hurling panel.

He was far from alone in holding that opinion. John Meyler’s use of his bench that day in Croke Park shone a harsh light on the squad’s reach and O’Sullivan, who doubled down on his concerns in interviews last January, remains sceptical about any remedial work done in the meantime as the championship looms large.

“That’s still the burning question,” he said. “Is there guys there they found that can really come in and put Christopher Joyce under pressure at right half-back, put Conor Lehane under pressure at right half-forward or full-forward or wherever he might play? Have they found guys who can take on players of that calibre and really push them out of their comfort zone to get back to the level of player they have been over the last number of years?

The next couple of weeks will tell you a lot.

O’Sullivan wonders if the seeds of this issue may have been sown during his own days as a selector under Kieran Kingston. Maybe, he thinks, some of those fringe players became comfortable with their cameo roles, but he has seen how Meyler has gone about sourcing a solution.

Cork used 32 players in their five league games this spring. That’s a big number, but ask him to share who among the newer brigades caught his eye in that spell and O’Sullivan starts with Darren Browne’s emergence as a defender in the latter stages and... that’s about it.

Colm Spillane’s absence means there is a slot open at the back, but do Cork give Browne his wings there or revert to the more experienced Stephen McDonnell? The latter banked four starts on his return to the squad while Aidan Walsh, another veteran, lined out from the start in all five.

Both have considerable credit in the bank with Cork, but the renewed reliance on such older hands, allied with the lack of an influx of youth on the back of a year when the U21s were so lauded, is a clear concern to O’Sullivan as Tipperary visit Páirc Uí Chaoimh this Sunday.

“Stephen McDonnell was always saying he was taking a year out for his own benefit for whatever he wanted to do. It was just a case of really to see did he want to go back in. What age is he now? 30, 31. Aidan Walsh 28, 29. I found that strange now, to be honest with you.

“I found the Aidan Walsh one strange. When he left us initially after 2017, I remember I said to him that he was just starting to turn a corner. Now he’s further back in his development. It’s very hard to come in 28, 29 years of age and try to pick up where the game has got faster.”

O’Sullivan is concerned because he has seen this story unfold before. His own generation achieved great things in the noughties but they grew old — “stagnant and stale” — together because the roll call stayed so static for so long.

You can only hold [young players] back for so long.

"If you keep holding them back, they’re only going to get stale so I suppose it’s like a horse when he’s chomping at the bit: throw him in there and see how it goes. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

None of which amounts to a call to dispense with the players who have secured a place in three straight All-Ireland semi-finals and won successive Munster titles. O’Sullivan saw first-hand the talent and the work ethic that brought all of that about.

His respect for the likes of Patrick Horgan and his frustration at how the player’s name is rarely mentioned in debates about hurling’s best players (“It does my head in”) is maybe the best example of the respect he has for those men. But time waits for no man.

“As Cork people, we have won an All-Ireland in every decade. It would be a shame if that goes. This is a massive year of all years. It’s the last year in the decade, so we want to protect our history and what’s gone before us by winning one this year.

“Time is running out, rapidly,” O’Sullivan warned. “Hoggy, Lehane, Joycey, Harnedy, Nasher: there’s not too many more opportunities are going to come their way if it doesn’t come right over the next four to five months.”

Diarmuid O’Sullivan is a Paddy Power GAA ambassador.

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