If you want to trace the evolution of Cork’s style these last three seasons, look no further than the positioning of Mark Ellis.
He was in his customary centre-back role up to the 2015 Munster semi-final against Waterford when that defeat prompted Jimmy Barry-Murphy to deploy him in an anchoring sweeper role protecting the “D” during the qualifiers.
A season later and he was corner-back against Tipperary, as William Egan was commissioned as the deep-lying sweeper to cut out ball to Seamus Callanan.
Now, Ellis is back where he started. And he couldn’t be happier. “Last year, I was corner-back for the first couple of games. I didn’t play half-back at all last year. The year before, we probably were a bit too defensive. It seemed to take off in hurling that you couldn’t be successful in hurling if you didn’t have an all-out sweeper.
“Tadhg de Búrca was doing it with Waterford and I was given the role with Cork. It probably is a bit negative and Cork hurlers were used to playing off-the-cuff and with pace coming off the shoulder and expressing themselves.
“When you’re playing a standardised sweeper it probably is as negative and going against the grain of what Cork hurling traditionally would be about, and purists would have been against it.”
That’s not to say Ellis isn’t mindful about what is going on behind him. If the sliotar bypasses him, his first thought is to follow it. “I think everyone is protecting the line behind them. That’s the way it’s gone. We’re all attacking, we’re all defending. If the ball is in the full-back line, I’m going back to help out. If the ball is in the half-back line, midfield is helping me out.
“Hurling has changed hugely in the last few years. If you go back to the 90s, it was just catch-and-hit. The game is constantly flowing (now).”
It was the defeats which severed relations between the Cork supporters and their team last year. Their tactics didn’t help foster bonhomie with fans but then neither did their effort. That, Ellis senses, is the major difference from last season.
“The work ethic has gone up hugely and crowds can relate to that. Everyone can relate to hard work, everyone can buy into that and appreciate fellas working hard. Win, lose, or draw, if you give it your all that’s all the public in Cork really want to see.”
This summer Cork have looked peerless in the closing stages of games. Ellis puts that down to to their early season mindset.
“From the outset this year, we have really targeted every game as an individual game and a real change. Last year, I think we treated the league poorly thinking we would just come good in championship, thinking: ‘Jees, we’re Cork, we’ll be fine when it comes down to it’. But we lost five league games. We only won one game, the relegation game, and that gave fellas a bit of belief we could win but it’s very hard to switch it on. The way Division 1A is now, you’ve got to be up for every single game and maybe we were left behind in previous years.
“This year, right from the outset in the Munster Senior League we won that, we played a few challenge games and won all those as well. We had real confidence going into the league. We won one or two but we felt we were right in the mix when the league finished. We lost to Limerick but we weren’t behind the teams. We beat Tipp in a good game in Páirc Uí Rinn. We conceded three goals and scored none but still won so we knew then we had a real chance.”
Ellis is a firm believer in a group only being as the strong as the weakest link in the chain. The thing is those who aren’t seeing any action aren’t showing any let-up behind closed doors.
“Everything we do in training, our A v B games are hugely competitive, way more competitive than before. If you were a stranger coming to training look out at the pitch on any given night you could pick one or two of the best fellas and they mightn’t even be on the match-day panel. Fellas are going really well that haven’t been seen yet. Fellas not even in the squad are busting a gut in training and everyone else is rowing in behind them.”
Cork’s collapse against Tipperary in the semi-final three years ago after claiming the Munster SHC isn’t too far away from Ellis’ thoughts.
“At the moment, there is huge elation and the Cork public are really thinking Cork hurling is back and we’ve obviously won three good games. In 2014, we had beaten Waterford in a replay, beaten Clare, beaten Limerick, so we had won three games.
“We won the Munster Championship like this year and really, when you look back on it, we were only in the (All-Ireland) semi-final. We lost to Tipp in the semi-final and we never really got going. When you think back to that year you don’t think of the Munster final but the semi-final. We have a lot of young players as everyone knows but we’ve a lot of players who were there before. When we look back on championship 2017 it’ll be the All-Ireland and this is really when the championship starts and everyone knows that.”
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