Ben O’Connor is hopeful the blistering pace and new-found ruthless streak in Cork’s forward unit will take the county past Kilkenny in Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final.
Former Cork hurler O’Connor has been hugely impressed with how Kieran Kingston’s side are playing more as a team this season so as to mine goals as often as is possible, a far cry from recent years where players were content to take the “handy point” and “get their name in the paper”.
Cork are averaging two goals per championship game this year, double their 2020 average, while the 18 goals registered during the League was more than the county’s combined total across the 2020 and 2019 league campaigns.
The three-time All-Ireland winner said Cork must again use their forward pace to try and unsettle a Kilkenny defence that has been performing well to date, but hasn’t been tested to the extent they will be this weekend.
“Every one of the forwards has blistering pace, bar Hoggy (Patrick Horgan) now at this stage. The opposition might be watching one of them, but then another forward is cutting loose, so if one doesn't come up trumps, the others seem to be filling in instead of him,” said O’Connor.
“The goal return has been way up this year in League and Championship. It is something they have been working on. Where before a fella might have been happy to tap the ball over the bar and get his name on the paper, now they are looking for the killer blow straightaway.
“They are giving that extra pass off to the fella in the better position so as to create the goal chance, whereas maybe three or four years ago they weren't doing that, fellas were trying to get their name on the paper and keep themselves on the team by getting a few points.
“If you go back to the second-half of the 2019 All-Ireland final, Seamie Callanan got a ball in the corner and he could have turned and tapped it over for the easy point as Tipp were well up at this stage, but instead he swung it into Bubbles at the edge of the square, one touch, back of the net. Cork hadn't been doing that, whereas now, it is something they have looked at and have seen that it is a lot better if we get a goal and the team wins, rather than me playing well and getting 10 points but we are still after getting beat. It is more of a team effort.”
The two-time All-Star said the Cork defence will need to be tighter at the back at GAA HQ than they have been in recent outings. Mind you, he was full of praise for how Robert Downey has grown into the full-back role and the shift he put in against Dublin’s Ronan Hayes last time out.
“When the backs get the ball, maybe deliver it a little bit faster into the forwards. Sometimes they are holding it for a split second longer when the run is made inside and the next thing the run is blocked off.”
Although Cork are chasing a first All-Ireland final appearance since 2013 and a first Liam MacCarthy win since 2005, O’Connor’s old Cork teammate Tom Kenny reckons there is as much pressure on Kilkenny going into this weekend’s game as there is on Kieran Kingston’s charges.
“Kilkenny haven't won an All-Ireland since 2015, that's a long drought considering the standards they have set over the last 20, 25 years. You could argue there is pressure on Brian Cody and pressure on Kilkenny to get back to and win a final, that not necessarily all the pressure is on Cork to deliver an All-Ireland when, at the start of the year, people would have said Cork were going through a transition.
“Definitely from a Cork point of view, it would be nice to say we have beaten Kilkenny in a championship game at Croke Park given we last managed that in 2004.”
While O’Connor has no concerns about Cork stepping inside the whitewash for a third weekend in succession, Kenny reckons an extra layer of freshness could be achieved by either starting the U20 pair of Alan Connolly and Shane Barrett or introducing them early in proceedings.
“They bring a freshness, they bring directness. Other players can get a bounce off that. The management are obviously very experienced and who am I to tell them what to do, but I would like to think that those young lads will get more game-time than they have been seeing because they might bring that extra bit of freshness to the team after being on the go for three weeks. And when you consider the match against Clare was played in very hot conditions, that could have been very energy sapping and will only begin to show now.”