The questions hanging over Cork's hurlers after league campaign

“I think we learned a lot about ourselves,” replied Kieran Kingston, when asked what the Cork hurlers can take from their five-week league campaign.

The questions hanging over Cork's hurlers after league campaign
Pic: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

“I think we learned a lot about ourselves,” replied Kieran Kingston, when asked what the Cork hurlers can take from their five-week league campaign.

It was a league in which Cork suffered more defeats than they mined victories, their final tally of two wins - one of which was a lucky escape from Mullingar - insufficient to book them a place in the quarter-finals.

But despite this string of disappointing early-season results, Kingston, standing outside the visiting dressing-room at Pearse Stadium on Sunday, was focused only on accentuating the positives.

“We obviously wanted to win every game and you want to be as competitive as you can in the league, but I think we learned a lot about ourselves,” the manager began.

“We’ve tried guys in different positions, huge change since last year’s championship. New personnel in different locations and new personnel into the team. That’s been pleasing for us.

“Outside of not getting another couple of games out of it, which wouldn’t have been any harm, I think the league has been good for us in terms of what we have learned about ourselves, more than anything else.”

Is this optimism justified or does it gloss over the many question marks still hanging over the Cork team and what composition it will take come their championship opener at home to Limerick on May 10?

On the basis of the past five weeks, one would have to lean towards the latter conclusion.

New personnel

At the launch of the Munster Senior League last December, coach Ger Cunningham confirmed to this newspaper that six members of the Cork U20 team which fell to Tipperary in the 2019 All-Ireland final - Ger Collins, Sean O’Leary-Hayes, Ger Millerick, Tommy O’Connell, Brian Turnbull, and Sean Twomey - had been called into the senior squad. Three from this sextet - O’Leary-Hayes, Twomey, and Turnbull - saw game-time in recent weeks. O’Leary-Hayes featured most prominently, earning three starts, as well as coming off the bench against Waterford.

As matters currently stand, the Midleton defender is the sole member of this group who is in contention for involvement on May 10. And even at that, he is up against Niall O’Leary and Sean O’Donoghue for the remaining corner-back berth.

Depth

That old chestnut, one which has plagued Cork for the last number of years - and continues to do so.

Steps, such as bringing on board a handful of last year’s U20s, as well as increased game-time for the likes of Chris O’Leary and Declan Dalton (three starts each), have been taken to rectify this deficiency, but Cork still lack the bench options which other counties possess.

At Pearse Stadium, Galway subs David Burke and Evan Niland hit the game’s final three scores to seal victory for the hosts. Cork, by way of contrast, made just one second-half change, and that was in the 70th minute.

If management believed they had potential game-changers sitting in the stand, particularly when those inside the whitewash had “run out of legs”, as Kingston admitted afterwards, why then weren’t they sprung.

Just an observation, but management did not use their full complement of subs in any of their five outings.

At the recent launch of Cork’s 1920 commemorative jersey, selector Diarmuid O’Sullivan remarked: “We know the face of hurling in Cork is going to change over the next four or five years. If we can keep all these 20, 21, and 22-year olds involved in a high performance set-up over the next couple of years, it is for the betterment of Cork hurling. These guys aren’t just in here to sit on the bench and watch the likes of a Conor Lehane or a Bill Cooper, these guys are here to push them, as we have seen from guys who have come into the team and done really well.”

The bench against Galway had a youthful look about it. Against Westmeath, eight of the subs fell into the U23 category.

No more than the U20 graduates listed above, time is on their side, but that cannot excuse the fact that Cork’s first-team regulars are not looking over their shoulder in trepidation.

Experimentation

The half-back line has the potential to be Cork’s strongest this summer, arising from management’s decision to move Damien Cahalane from full to left-half back and Bill Cooper’s redeployment from midfield to centre-back. The latter switch also facilitates Darragh Fitzgibbon and Mark Coleman striking up a most exciting midfield partnership.

Overall, we counted nine players who were selected in at least two different lines of the field in recent weeks.

Defence

Full-back remains unresolved, with Eoin Cadogan and Robert Downey vying for the number three shirt. There’s also a corner-back position still going.

As a whole, there are defensive creases to be ironed out. Fortunately for the Rebels, they have 10 weeks to do so.

Cork’s average concession this league finished up at 1-22 per game. By way of comparison, Limerick’s average is 0-19.

“Cork are shooting the lights out at one end, but conceding so much at the other end,” Jackie Tyrrell correctly opined on RTÉ’s League Sunday.

Attack

As noted here previously, no forward bar Patrick Horgan and Shane Kingston can be satisfied with their spring contribution.

Cork struck 11-90 across their five league outings. When you subtract the respective tallies of Horgan (3-49) and Kingston (3-5), accounting as they do for almost 60% of the county’s overall total, it quickly becomes apparent how paltry the contributions have been from the rest of the forward unit.

While club activity will eat into what Cork can do during the month of April, management, privately, might well be thankful to have the 10-week layoff they do to ready the troops for championship.

Cork’s five-year league struggle

2016: Lost all five Division 1A round-robin games. Held onto their top-tier status by subsequently overcoming Galway in the relegation playoff.

2017: Finished second in Division 1A table. Beaten quarter-finalists.

2018: Lost four of their five Division 1A round-robin games. Subsequently beat Waterford in the relegation playoff.

2019: Finished bottom of Division 1A table. No relegation on account of league restructuring.

2020: Failed to make the knockout phase.

- Cork have played 29 league games during this period, winning 11 and losing 18.

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