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Waterford a bridge too far for Cork but they can reflect on plenty good work in 2017

The Rebels have bowed out but can reflect on major progress.

Diarmuid O'Sullivan speaks to Maurice Shanahan Diarmuid O'Sullivan and Maurice Shanahan aftere yesterday's game. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

WHEN THE FINAL whistle sounded in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final, Cork found themselves ten points adrift of Tipperary.

Yesterday was a heavier defeat at the same stage as the losing margin had swelled to 11 points.

And yet the post-match mood after this loss to Waterford was different.

Where gloom engulfed the county’s fortunes in 2014, this time the sense of acceptance at the result was mixed with the positive portents for the future.

Cork bowed out of the All-Ireland race in a game which spun away from them in the closing stages as Waterford applied some gloss on the scoreboard.

The sending-off of Damien Cahalane crippled Cork. His pair of fouls merited yellow cards but Cork were notably outscored by 3-8 to 0-5 in the wake of his dismissal.

Just like Cork struggled in the 2013 Munster final when reduced to 14 men, and just like they capitalised on their personnel advantage in the All-Ireland quarter-final and semi-final that year, the brandishing of a red card proved a pivotal moment.

James Owens issues Damien Cahalane with a red card following a second yellow card Damien Cahalane is shown a red card by referee James Owens. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Waterford took full advantage, showing a ruthless streak that had eluded them in recent All-Ireland semi-final outings. In 2015 and 2016 against Kilkenny in Croke Park, Waterford failed to raise a green flag but they pierced the Cork cover for four goals yesterday and that settled this contest.

A third season on the bounce reaching the last four reflected Waterford’s more seasoned nature. 11 Cork players that featured yesterday started in that comprehensive 2014 semi-final loss to Tipperary.

Having that core should have given them a foothold in the game but crucially the entire left flank of their starting team were making their Croke Park debuts.

It was unchartered territory for Colm Spillane (24), Mark Coleman (19), Darragh Fitzgibbon (20), Shane Kingston (19) and Luke Meade (20), while half-time substitute Michael Cahalane (22) was also breaking new ground.

The influx of youth has revived Cork this summer but they were never able to make the same impact yesterday that they had during the Munster championship. Shane Kingston made a bright opening salvo and Darragh Fitzgibbon thundered into the action after the break yet ultimately Waterford paid greater attention to stifling those Cork threats.

Darragh Fitzgibbon blocked by Kevin Moran Cor's Darragh Fitzgibbon is blocked by Waterford's Kevin Moran. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

The room Cork were afforded to stamp their authority on the game in June’s Munster semi-final was closed down here.

Between pre-season, the league and the Munster championship, Kieran Kingston had sent his team into action 14 times in 2017 before yesterday. They had conceded 14 goals in that period and only twice – Dublin (2) and Tipperary (3) in the league – had a team raised more than one green flag in a match against them.

Jamie Barron celebrates scoring his sides opening goal Jamie Barron hit two goals yesterday for Waterford. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Yesterday Cork were submerged by a wave of Waterford goals. The first one was costly with the defence pulled into uncomfortable positions and Brick Walsh peeling off Mark Coleman to find the net. The last three strikes came after Cahalane’s sending-off when Cork were without an aggressive defensive anchor.

Christopher Joyce was dispossessed for the second goal and the last three strikes all saw Waterford’s finishers having extra time and space to clinically find the net. Cork have made themselves harder to break down throughout 2017. Yesterday gaps appeared in their defensive structure in the final quarter and Waterford pounced to inflict the damage.

Cork did reach the 20-point mark on the scoreboard but it was a slight dip from their average of raising 25 white flags per game in Munster. Part of that problem was the onus on Patrick Horgan to deliver, the Glen Rovers man contributing 60% of their total scores in a simply masterful display.

Patrick Horgan and Shane Fives Patrick Horgan in action against Shane Fives. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Sufficient support was not forthcoming for Horgan. In Munster the trio of Seamus Harnedy, Conor Lehane and Alan Cadogan amassed 1-24 between them from play. Yesterday they grabbed a combined 0-5 from play but their influence was not as pronounced.

Waterford worked hard on dismantling Cork’s puckouts, not allowing Harnedy and Lehane to be reliable outlets. Lehane stayed involved in the game but Conor Gleeson put him under ferocious pressure and his shooting was errant throughout.

Cadogan had to cope with Noel Connors sticking to him like an adhesive but the supply into the Douglas man did not benefit him. His point in either half was a product of a favourable angled ball but too often Cork’s deliveries were raining down on a goalmouth that Waterford protected in numbers. Stephen O’Keeffe not being called into shot-stopping action was also instructive.

It should be a learning experience for Cork. Kingston can reflect on a 2017 campaign when his side have arguably been the most improved inter-county hurling outfit with only Wexford having made a comparable leap.

From the struggles of 2016, Cork’s metamorphosis in the space of a year has been striking. They retained their league status comfortably and swept to a marvellous Munster title win. The age profile of the squad is healthy with only Anthony Nash, Bill Cooper and Patrick Horgan set to be over the 30 year mark when the 2018 championship commences.

On a wider scale, there have been positive signposts for the future with an All-Ireland U17 success, the prospect of a minor final to follow in early September and running a star-studded Limerick side to two points in the Munster U21 final.

Derek McGrath and Kieran Kingston  at the final whistle Derek McGrath and Kieran Kingston after yesterday's game. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

There is still some distance to climb before they reach the summit. It’s worth comparing Cork to this year’s All-Ireland finalists. Both Galway and Waterford look older and wiser now on the back of having featured consistently in the last four since 2015.

Cork are shorn of that experience. Yesterday was a game to stock in the memory bank and attempt to absorb lessons from.

The trick is for them now to keep developing. They never kicked on after 2014 but the evidence suggests they can after 2017.

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