Cork football selector Eddie Kirwan has likened tomorrow’s fourth-round qualifier against Laois to an ‘All-Ireland final’.
The final qualifier round has become something of a graveyard for Cork’s championship ambitions in recent seasons, with the county falling at this hurdle each summer over the past four years.
Victory over John Sugrue’s Laois would bridge a five-year gap to the county’s last All-Ireland quarter-final appearance, while also guaranteeing Ronan McCarthy’s charges successive outings at Croke Park, against Dublin and either Cavan or Tyrone. 2015 was the last time that Cork played a senior championship fixture at GAA HQ.
Where the development of this group is concerned, selector Kirwan believes it imperative they progress to the Super 8s.
“It is like an All-Ireland final because it opens up a huge avenue for us,” reasoned Nemo Rangers clubman Kirwan.
“The winners get to play in Croke Park two weekends in-a-row and then have a home fixture against the Connacht champions.
“That would be huge exposure for a young squad. It’s where you’ll learn. It’s where we need to be.
It is a massive game and that is why I put it down as an All-Ireland final for Cork. We’re good enough and we’re consistent enough, but we have to perform on Saturday. Laois will fancy their chances against us, but I feel that if we perform, we’ll be in good nick.
Cork’s run of defeats in the fourth round of qualifiers highlights how difficult they’ve found the task of successfully bouncing back from a provincial final loss. But given the defeat to Kerry did not stem from any sort of “systems failure”, Kirwan is confident they can rectify what they didn’t do right at Páirc Uí Chaoimh a fortnight ago.
The Rebels nailed just 13 of 28 chances for a conversation rate of 46%, compared to Kerry’s 77%. Indeed, even when the hosts had momentum behind them following Brian Hurley’s equalising goal, their conversion rate from there to the final whistle was a disappointing 44%.
“We expected that if we performed and executed, we’d win, but we didn’t. When Kerry went down to 14 men, we had chances to get ahead but didn’t execute. The disappointment was centred on game-management but that’s fixable. And if we get that right, we’ll be tough to beat.
“At the end of the league, we won in Tipperary and went up to Armagh and won and that is a team who have proven highly competitive in the qualifiers. We’ve played a number of challenge matches and people can say what they want about them, but if you win, it is a confidence boost. So we could be bullish and say our Munster final performance was a surprise, but it wasn’t.”
He added: “People judge you on championship. We performed well against Limerick and performed generally well against Kerry, but we have to do it again now on Saturday. That’s where Cork have fallen down over the last number of years, we haven’t been consistent enough in the vital games.”
Manager Ronan McCarthy, meanwhile, wants his troops to be more “cold-blooded” in Thurles.
“When we needed to be more decisive and cold-blooded [in the Munster final], we weren’t. I’m talking about a one or two per cent margin that would have got us over the line. Once we recognise that, learn from it, and apply it on Saturday, hopefully, it is something we will benefit from down the road.”
The Cork boss, not surprisingly, admitted it has been easier to prepare for this fourth-round qualifier than was the case 12 months ago when Cork were attempting to pick themselves up following a 17-point Munster final drubbing.
“We were coming back off a very heavy defeat. We also got a bug in the squad the week of the Tyrone game which affected about half of the players.
“We never mentioned it at the time. We had up to 14 players who were in fairly poor shape in relation to hydration and everything else. I am not saying we would have won the game, but any opportunity we had to take the fight to Tyrone, I think it was always going to be hard for us [because of the bug]. Once this team got into a run of positive results, I always felt the quality and talent was there to come through. We just got to keep it going and make sure we bring the same level of performance to the game on Saturday.”