2016 was a new low in a lengthy list of new, modern lows for Cork hurling. There was the shockingly abysmal national league campaign, the 9-point annihilation at the hands of Tipperary, the shaky home win against 14-man Dublin and the humbling and historic loss to a ‘pre-Davy’ Wexford.
While the defeat to Kilkenny in Croke Park last year was devastating due to its numbing inevitability, at the time it didn’t seem to mark the end of the period of restoration that followed the humiliation of 2016.
There seemed to have been enough progress made to move forward from, there seemed to be enough talent coming through to be optimistic about, despite the numerous underage All-Ireland losses, and there just seemed to be a sense that, in general, things were moving in the right direction even if there was still a long road to travel.
At least there seemed to be.
What transpired last weekend, however, stank of 2016, and in many ways if felt worse as Waterford, with all due respect, are no Tipperary. That feeling of déjà vu was exacerbated by the qualifier draw on Monday morning. Dublin, again, but this time without the advantage of home comforts.
Of course, there are plenty of mitigating circumstances surrounding last weekend’s capitulation. There was the injury list, the long break since the league the global pandemic, the eerie atmosphere that transformed Thurles from a cathedral into a necropolis, the referee and, possibly even, the prolonged county championship.
None of these circumstances, however, can explain away or be blamed for the complete absence of so many of the essential fundamentals in Cork’s performance last Saturday.
Tadhg de Búrca is a fabulous hurler. He reads the game well, he delivers intelligent ball into his forwards, he has a good hand, and he has a physical presence at the heart of the Waterford defence. It is a universal truth, however, that if you give good players time and space, they will destroy you.
De Búrca is better than good, so the time and space afforded to him by Cork for 70-odd minutes was always going to be catastrophic and, thus, inexcusable. The same goes for Cork’s lack of competitiveness when it came to winning the ball.
You could have the best management in the world, the best facilities, the most money, the perfect shape, the best players, and a shiny new tactics board loaded with ground-breaking ideas. But they are all completely irrelevant if the willingness to compete for every ball as if it were the last one is absent.
Cork’s half-forward line and puck-out strategy seems to be a manifestation of all of those problems. For as long as I can remember, Cork have been obsessed with finding a ball-winning half-forward line – preferably three clones of the great Tim Crowley of Newcestown – even when times were good.
These problems are in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Everybody that Cork play now know what Cork are going to try and do. They’re getting better and better and squeezing the options, the targets are becoming smaller and smaller and too often, even when the ball sticks, the player in possession is outnumbered.
Surely, at this level, variance is a necessity, even if it’s as basic as breaking it and trying to win it on the ground? The Cork half-forwards seemed to try and play a bit deeper last weekend (though it’s impossible to really tell on TV) but any chance of this being effective was completely negated by booming ball after ball down on top of de Búrca. It was just like…2016.
Everything about the game was all too familiar. The team named to start was all too predictable, all too comfortable. There are certain inherent problems in the team that haven’t seemed to be addressed at all. The biggest one being Cork’s propensity to concede massive scores.
When Calum Lyons became the latest player to waltz through a Cork defence without a glove being laid on him, he registered Waterford’s eighteenth score in 40 minutes of hurling. This isn’t the Waterford of Flynn, Mullane and Shanahan either.
It’s a level of concession that makes your task nigh on impossible and should provoke real anger within a group. But it feels as if any anger that may have been there has given way to acceptance and means that Saturday could become cataclysmic.
What’s gone wrong?
Well, sometime between the heartache of the defeat to Limerick in 2018 and the beginning of another frustrating league campaign in 2019, Gary Keegan’s involvement with the Cork hurlers ended quietly.
I have no idea how or why that happened, nor do I know what influence he had on the camp. What I do know, however, is that there is a direct correlation with his departure and Cork’s decline, just as there was a direct correlation with his arrival and Cork’s improvement.
Mindset often seems to be the biggest problem with this group, and it makes sense that the loss of one of the best in the business at getting your mind right would have a detrimental effect. But what has been done to fill the gap?
Attitude is by far and away the most important thing in Thurles tomorrow, both on and off the field. Going for the same again is simply not going to work as it hasn’t been working up until now.
If it’s right, there’s always a chance. And you would expect that there has to be some sort of reaction to last week’s no-show, but then again, to be depending on the minimum response to get you out of trouble is always worrying.
The saddest thing is that those types of performances have become the norm over the past ten years.
Traditionally, the footballers have been on the receiving end of a lot more criticism when their levels have slipped below expectations. However, the team they’ve picked for Sunday gives the impression that they’re not going to die wondering down the Páirc.
There’s always merit to that, as there is a message for the hurlers, and in the strange world we live in, things can change very quickly.