State of Flux

Defeat is meant to be a far better teacher than victory, and so we expected that the Wexford that came to town yesterday would be a far better version of itself than the one that was humbled at home by Clare a fortnight ago. And so it was. Wexford were far, far better because they simply had to be. To be anything else would have been cataclysmic.

As for Cork, well, they were far closer to the standard that was set against Westmeath two weeks ago as opposed to the opening two victories over Limerick and Galway. For fifty minutes they were even below that as they looked well off the required standard. What did that fifty minutes look like? Take your pick of lethargic, disjointed, casual, lackadaisical, flat or anything else that you can think of. It wasn’t great.

The result of that was that Cork played with no cohesion at all. Everything seemed a struggle. The support runners just weren’t there, the forwards seemed isolated, and they seemed to have no space to hurl and their lines seemed to be too far away from one another, though Diarmuid O’Keeffe deserves some kudos for the way he contributed to Wexford’s defensive shape.

The initial result was that, incredibly, Cork failed to score for the first twenty minutes, a fair achievement in the modern game of which we’re told that scores are too easy to come by.  This wasn’t last June in Thurles either, when Cork’s radar malfunctioned in the opening half to gift Galway a place in the All-Ireland semi-final. They created chances then, but even chances were slim on the ground early on. There was a wide or two, and a glorious goal opportunity that lacked the type of clinical finish that Jake Morris provided three times in Thurles on Saturday night. But, that was it.

A better side than Wexford may well have punished Cork more severely for their slackness but still, a six-point cushion away from home was exactly what they needed. The way that they weaved through the lines with support runners coming from deep really hurt a Cork side that seemed to be sitting back and waiting for something different.

However, once Shane Kingston slotted over the opening free and Shane Barrett got the scores from play going, we waited for Cork to come good. A half time deficit of four points wasn’t too bad, all things considered and we waited for a more familiar Cork to emerge. That waiting gave way to impatience when it was Wexford who again laid out the rules of engagement, but when Paudie Power brilliantly conjured a goal out of nothing, we expected things to work out the way that we wanted them to.

The longer the game progressed though, the more it seemed like it was going to be one of those days that we’ve had far too many of. It was hard not to think of the last time that Wexford came to town in 2019, a day that the Páirc’s surface was an embarrassment and Cork lost all too predictably by four points. Unbelievably, only Conor Cahalane started both then and now, while Luke Meade, Shane Kingston and Declan Dalton came on.

The massive fluctuation in personnel is a result of the passage of time and the frailties of the human body, and ultimately any judgement of Cork’s performance yesterday must be tempered as much by who wasn’t playing as by who was. And that’s been the dominant theme of the league really, Cork have looked a bit disjointed the last two outings because they are, because they have to be when you stand back and look at things with a bit of perspective.

This was the weekend, apparently, that teams would be showing their hands, that teams would be targeting as a tune-up for the big show next month. Cork weren’t in a position to do so, however, as they started only five of the fifteen who started their last championship game. As good as the talent that is coming through may be, there is no chance in the modern game for them all to be, ahem, oven-ready for championship. The length of Cork’s injury list means that they need more games, and this in turn means that qualifying for the semi-final is a good thing. Lots of players have got chances in the last month, but when lots of players get their chances at the same time, it leads to days like yesterday.

Events in Ennis meant a draw was needed to make sure of a semi-final spot, and when Jack O’Connor finally brought Cork level, most of us would have taken that. The returning Séamus Harnedy had other ideas. In his cameo, he brought what Cork had been lacking up front; leadership. He brought the energy of a man who was sick of watching the world go by from the sidelines, a man who couldn’t wait to get involved. His enthusiasm probably gave us an insight into what’s happening behind the scenes while he also served as a reminder of who Cork have been missing.

His contribution to Cormac Beausang’s winning goal was built more on graft than guile but he celebrated it with gusto. After all, Cork had just won a game that they had no right to win.

And that is important. You may learn more in defeat than in victory, but winning is also a habit, and digging out victories from precarious positions is an even better habit. Once again Cork, despite being far from their best, played to the very end. Of course, that should be a fundamental quality of any team, but that isn’t always the case.

With four games played, we’re really none the wiser of where Cork are actually at. A trip to the dragon pit in Ennis next weekend will be a further test of Cork’s appetite for destruction, but Pat Ryan won’t be planting a Cork flag on the halfway line to poke the bear either – yet.

From there, the evenings will be getting longer, and, hopefully, the injury list will be getting shorter as Cork will strive to get the balance between the old and the new just right.

John Coleman

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