‘Bring it on,’ was the battle cry from Brian Hurley as a rejuvenated Cork face into a fortnight of Super 8s action at Croke Park where they’ll line up against the two counties who contested last year’s All-Ireland final.
Cork’s reward for safely negotiating the fourth-round qualifier hurdle for the first time since 2014 is to join Dublin, Tyrone, and Connacht champions Roscommon, in Group Two of the All-Ireland quarter-final series.
And given it is five years since the county last reached the final eight in the race for Sam, not to mention that nine of Saturday’s starting team have never played senior championship at GAA HQ, Cork could have done with an opening Super 8 fixture that allowed them gently dip the toe into these unfamiliar waters.
Instead, they’ll be thrown head-first into the deep end on Saturday, Jim Gavin’s Dublin to present a challenge light years apart from what Cork comfortably dealt with at Semple Stadium over the weekend.
The five-in-a-row chasing Dubs boasted a 19-point average winning margin when striding through Leinster and yet Hurley cannot wait to test himself against the champions.
Moreover, that they must head back to Croke Park on Saturday week for a date with Mickey Harte’s Tyrone is to be welcomed rather than viewed as, potentially, a second bridge too far for this developing and improving Cork team.
“You cannot beat playing one of the best teams in Ireland in front of a big Croke Park crowd. That is what you train hard for and why you play football,” said Hurley.
“A lot of the lads haven’t played at Croke Park and that brings an extra bit of excitement to it. People will say there will be nerves. I say, turn that around into excitement. There are a lot of young fellas in our group who live on the edge. No doubt they’ll take Croker in their stride.”
Hurley’s rising graph of recent weeks has almost been a microcosm of that of his county. After a dark two years off-Broadway because of back-to-back hamstring tears, Hurley has rediscovered the form which earned him an All-Star nomination in 2014, netting five times across Cork’s three championship outings. That figure rises to seven when you factor in their final league fixture away to Armagh.
And in the same way that manager Ronan McCarthy believes the 27-year old forward will continue to get stronger, Hurley is adamant there is more to come from this Cork team.
“We’ve been through the mill the last couple of years and we are coming out the right side now. There is a lot of potential in this team. Cork, they are always saying, is a sleeping giant. We are coming, we are coming.
We are building something good here. I think there is more in us, to be honest. I think there is a lot of work to be done. Defensively, we left Laois through a bit easy.
Yes, Cork were somewhat sloppy in the closing stages, Martin Scully allowed in for a 52nd-minute goal, while sub Evan O’Carroll dragged his goal opportunity narrowly wide. But, context is everything here, and the outcome was long decided by the time Laois put together this late catalogue of scores.
More telling is the nine points the midlanders were held to in the opening 50 minutes. The Division 3 league finalists went the first 11 minutes after half-time without raising a flag of any description, while also failing to score from play between the 23rd and 48th minute.
As for the winners, they sped out of sight when kicking an unanswered 2-7 between the 31st and 43rd minute, their 0-12 to 0-7 interval lead morphing into an unassailable 13-point advantage.
Hurley and Mark Collins were responsible for 2-4 of this burst, the Castlehaven inside pair time and again having the better of their opposite numbers. Between them, they’d finish with 3-12. Collins provided the assist for Hurley’s opening major and it was roles reversed for Cork’s third.
Paul Kerrigan, who supplied a sumptuous delivery for the first goal, was at the end of their fourth. In three championship games, Cork have hit the net on 10 occasions.
Central figures in the creation of these goals were the runners coming through from the middle third, such as Ian Maguire, Kevin O’Driscoll, Rúairí Deane, Liam O’Donovan, and Mattie Taylor. As well as keeping the supply lines open to Collins and Hurley, they dominated Graham Brody’s restarts.
“It is not about who scores, it is all about the team performance,” continued Hurley.
“Mattie Taylor, Liam O’Donovan, Kevin O’Driscoll were my man of the matches. You saw them cramping up at the end. That is what it is about, no more than the work out of the backs and Maguire breaking ball at midfield. It is about, collectively, what we are doing and this train is moving on together.”
Scorers for Cork:
M Collins (1-8, 0-4 frees); B Hurley (2-4); P Kerrigan (1-1); S Sherlock (0-1 ‘45), R Deane (0-2 each); L O’Donovan, K O’Driscoll, R O’Toole (0-1 each).
Scorers for Laois:
D Kingston (0-10, 0-7 frees); M Scully (1-0); E Lowry, E O’Carroll, C Murphy, P Kingston, T Collins (0-1 each).
M White; K Flahive, J Loughrey, K O’Donovan; L O’Donovan, T Clancy, M Taylor; I Maguire; K O’Hanlon; K O’Driscoll, S White, R Deane; M Collins, B Hurley, L Connolly.
R O’Toole for O’Hanlon (21 mins, temporary); P Kerrigan for Connolly (HT); Tomás Clancy (Fermoy) for Tom Clancy (Clonakilty, 44, bc); A Browne for Loughrey (46); M Hurley for B Hurley (53); S Cronin for Maguire (62); S Sherlock for Deane (66).
G Brody; S Attride, D Booth, G Dillon; P O’Sullivan, R Pigott, T Collins; J O’Loughlin, K Lillis; D O’Reilly, P Kingston, M Scully; E Lowry, C Murphy, D Kingston.
C Begley for O’Sullivan (HT); E O’Carroll for P Kingston (44 mins); S Byrne for O’Reilly, M Barry for Murphy (both 46); D Seale for Booth (56); S O’Flynn for Dillon (63).
F Kelly (Longford).