Five years ago, Cork’s relegation to Division 1B prompted such panic that it was considered one of the events which prompted the introduction of Division 1 quarter-finals.
Ironically, that spring form was hardly reflected in the championship later that year as they and their relegation play-off opponents Clare contested the All-Ireland final.
As Galway and Waterford have demonstrated, Division 1B provides a softer landing nowadays.
However, for a county of Cork’s hurling heritage and substance, relegation, or at least the fear of it, is becoming a familiar scenario.
Sunday’s game against Waterford in Páirc Uí Rinn is their third such play-off in six seasons.
When you consider one of those years saw them in Division 1B, it’s a dismal spring record.
Excluding that Division 1B campaign in 2014, Cork have won just eight of 20 Division 1A round games since 2013.
So what can be gleaned from these three relegation-threatened seasons?
Who can forget just how thrilling Cork were in that first-round win over Tipperary in Páirc Uí Rinn five years ago?
The zip and intensity Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s side brought to that game completely stunned Tipperary and the
Rebels were full value for their 12-point win.
Alas, it was to be their only win as draws followed against Waterford and Galway and defeats to Clare and Kilkenny.
It was the Cats who provided the opposition in Páirc Uí Chaoimh in round one this year and Cork’s character showed in seeing them off in the closing stages to pick up a first league win over Kilkenny in seven attempts.
However, the performance levels have since deteriorated, as exemplified by the four defeats that followed it, and Sunday’s three-point loss to Tipperary was misleading, given the victors had 20 wides among 50 scoring chances while Anthony Nash was in fine shot-stopping form.
Lean on Pa, part I
At this stage, the dependency on Pa Horgan is well known. In 2013, he scored 34 points of Cork’s 6-78 total after five rounds, just over 35%.
In 2016, his 2-36 of the team’s 8-89 Division 1A proper total worked out at 37.16%.
Horgan didn’t feature in the opening game against Kilkenny, but in the four rounds since, he’s again contributed 2-36 as Cork have 3-69.
That’s almost 54%, a frightening statistic on one hand and damning on the other.
The current All Star is arguably the best free-taker in the country and shows flashes of brilliance in open play, but Messrs Cadogan, Lehane, and Seamus Harnedy, as he is free to play this weekend, must take the load off him.
Lean on Pa, part II
We, and Horgan himself, would expect him to be Cork’s top scorer in every game as he is the primary free-taker (although Conor Lehane did well in Horgan’s absence against Kilkenny in January when he fired over nine points).
The breakdown of Cork’s scoring these three seasons illustrates their reliance on placed balls, along with Horgan’s accuracy from same.
This season, 1-40 points have come from deadballs (penalties, frees, 65s), which makes up 41% of total scores. In 2013, it was 1-30 (35%) as it was in ‘16 1-30 (29%).
This spring, Tipperary’s placed balls to play score ratio worked out as 1:2, similar to Cork, but then they scored 6-65 from play to Cork’s 3-53.
Ironically, for a team that struggle to find the net more than others, goals usually haven’t been an issue when Cork have found themselves close to the bottom of Division 1A.
Ironically, too, Cork were far better in the round games when they were relegated in 2013 than 2016, the year they just about avoided it, and this current campaign.
They actually ended the league with a positive scoring difference of four points compared to a pitiful minus-32 return two years ago and minus-13 this time around.
It is, though, eight season games since Cork have scored more than two goals in a match. Oh, and Horgan has scored half of the team’s goal total this spring.
A case against the defence
Since the introduction of the six-team Division 1A, only four teams have conceded over 100 points in their five round games: Kilkenny in 2015 (103), Galway (105) and Cork in 2016, and this year (118 and 112, respectively).
Cork might only have conceded two goals in this campaign, but the 112 would suggest a dearth of hooks, blocks, and tackles.
Indeed, it was indicated to this writer that the number they made for the first half against Waterford in Páirc Uí Chaoimh last month could have been five or lower.
In possession, Cork look as good as most but the appetite to win it isn’t what it should be, while Nash is still developing relationships with new retrievers on puck-outs and there have been slip-ups.
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