Sometimes there are moments in sport which seem to define players and what they represent.
Cork had really struggled to get into their rhythm in the 2003 All-Ireland final against Kilkenny, but they were starting to get on top early in the second-half when a long ball dropped into the Cork defence.
Having been stripped of his hurley by Henry Shefflin, Diarmuid O’Sullivan rose with both hands to claim the ball before rocking Eddie Brennan, DJ Carey and John Hoyne with three shuddering shoulders, refusing to take a backwards step. The decibel level from the Cork support reached deafening as they responded to their hero, ‘The Rock’.
It wasn’t enough to inspire his team to victory, but nine years on the Cloyne man supports the same theory for getting at the Cats; match them for physicality and the hurling can take care of itself.
“One thing about Kilkenny, yes they have good hurlers, but on the other side of the coin, they have been the bullies of hurling too,” O’Sullivan said at the Etihad GAA Roadshow in Mallow.
“Let’s be realistic, they have physically outfought teams, they have outmuscled and outfouled teams, they have been to the limit [of the laws]. I’ve always believed if you stand up to them, like we did over the years, if you stood toe-to-toe with them and didn’t back down, they become average enough.
“They’re not the extraordinary men or the untouchables everyone thinks. If you stand up to them, you’ll always have a chance.”
Unlike the victorious Cork sides O’Sullivan was a part of in 1999, 2004 and 2005, who were at the peak of their powers, the current squad represents a transition for the Rebels with youth very much to the fore. Revered names like Joe Deane, Ben and Jerry O’Connor and the Rock himself are no longer on hand to provide leadership in the Cork dressing room. While the return of Tom Kenny, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín and John Gardiner has balanced out the age profile somewhat, Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s vision is clearly of a young, energetic Cork team.
This reliance on young blood is particularly prevalent in the Cork attack. In their quarter-final victory over Waterford, 24-year-old Patrick Horgan was the senior statesman in a full-forward line featuring O’Sullivan’s younger brother Paudie and 22-year-old Luke O’Farrell.
Barry-Murphy’s preference towards youth has left him with one of the fittest and fastest squads in the championship. The late introduction of flyers Cathal Naughton and Darren Sweetnam against a tiring Désie outfit was undoubtedly a turning point in the quarter-final. But, in favouring youth, the Cork manager has had to sacrifice the physicality and experience O’Sullivan believes is so crucial against Kilkenny. With a semi-final against Galway to navigate, they won’t even be thinking of a meeting with Brian Cody’s charges at this stage. But should Cork prevail against the Tribesmen they could find themselves against the Cats on All-Ireland final day again, and O’Sullivan isn’t convinced this young batch of players would be able to handle the ferocity of Kilkenny.
“Playing physically is definitely one of the ways to get at Kilkenny. Have Cork the physicality? I don’t think they do at the moment,” O’Sullivan remarked.
“They have leadership in the backline but against Waterford there were times when it was crying out for someone of Joe’s experience or Ben O’Connor’s experience, they don’t have the physicality or the experience of those kinds of guys in the forward line yet.”
Like many down south, O’Sullivan sees this Cork team as a work in progress under Barry-Murphy and, unlike the glory days of the mid noughties when the Rebels reached four consecutive All-Ireland finals, believes the hurling community should settle for progress rather than results at this stage.
“The most important thing is they have set a solid foundation,” he said. “It had been wobbly over the last couple of years, they had their ups and downs but there’s a platform there now and they know they have something to work with.
“They’re after four games in the championship and will have a fifth and maybe sixth if they’re lucky. That will stand to them, especially younger players. In fairness to Jimmy, he’s giving them all a chance. Anything from here is a bonus.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved