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Dublin: 4 °C Monday 17 February, 2020

After another Munster battle with Kerry, what move will Cork make in All-Ireland series?

Another Round 4 football qualifier beckons for the Rebels on Saturday evening.

Image: James Crombie/INPHO

THEY’VE BEEN DOWN this road before.

Four years ago the Cork footballers landed in Thurles for a qualifier meeting with Leinster opponents. They produced a meek display and Kildare breezed past them by eight points.

That Round 4 tie represented the end of their season and as it later transpired the end of the road under Brian Cuthbert’s stewardship.

On Saturday evening they will pitch up at Semple Stadium again, Laois representing the Leinster hurdle they must surmount with a Super 8s appearance the prize on offer for the victors. 

Cork gained plenty praise for the manner in which they pushed Kerry to the wire in last month’s Munster final but will that be a springboard for a prolonged campaign?

You have to go back to 2014 for Cork’s last All-Ireland quarter-final showing. They were a regular presence amongst the final eight sides in the hunt for Sam Maguire for a decade before that but it hasn’t been a stage they’ve been able to grace of late. 

Cork have been amongst the last 12 in the country in the past four seasons but lost out on each occasion – 2015 against Kildare in Thurles, 2016 against Donegal in Croke Park, 2017 against Mayo in Gaelic Grounds and 2018 against Tyrone in Portlaoise.

2016 saw them knocked out of the Munster race by Tipperary and after managing to plot a route in the qualifiers past Limerick and Longford, they faded in the second half against a Donegal team powered on by the accuracy of Patrick McBrearty, who chalked up 0-11.

On the other three occasions Cork were coming off the back of a Munster final loss to Kerry. It is the same scenario they face now and focusing their minds to rebound is the challenge they must embrace.

The Round 4 losses in 2015 and 2018 saw Cork’s form hit the floor. They played brilliantly in the drawn provincial final four years ago in Killarney but Kerry overwhelmed them in the replay and Cork never recovered to take on Kildare six days later.

Last summer brought a 16-point beating against Tyrone, a fortnight after they were 17 points short of Kerry. Two years ago they were valiant and unfortunate in defeat to Mayo but their contribution to that thriller could not conceal the outcome of another exit before the All-Ireland quarter-finals commenced.

Will 2019 see that pattern of results altered? The vibes emanating from their camp after that recent loss to Kerry appeared positive in that respect. There was a sense of dejection at the loss and a refusal to get caught up in gripes about the display of the referee.

Sean White and Mattie Taylor dejected after the game Cork's Sean White and Mattie Taylor after the Munster final against Kerry. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Stewing on the disappointment of encounters with Kerry has not served Cork well over the last few seasons. If the promising aspects of their performance that night in Páirc Uí Chaoimh are to count for something, they’ll be aware of the requisite for a victory now.  

Last Monday’s draw may have been favourable in not pitting Cork against their recent conquerors in Mayo and Tyrone but it’s a pairing that will not daunt Laois either as they avoided Division 1 opposition in Galway or Cavan.

It’s unchartered territory for the counties in the senior football championship arena. The 2007 All-Ireland U21 final at the Thurles venue is the most recent reference point and at that survivors are thin on the ground from the winners that night (Paul Kerrigan) or the losers (John O’Loughlin and Donie Kingston). League standings frame the clash with late March seeing Cork relegated to Division 3 and Laois travelling in the opposite direction to Division 2.

For Cork their form in Munster this summer highlighted characteristics they will need to bring to play on Saturday. If Ruairi Deane has been the shining emblem of a hard-running, dynamic team that can punch holes relentlessly in an opposition rearguard, he’s had some willing support.  

Ruairi Deane and Gavin White Cork's Ruairi Deane and Gavin White of Kerry during the Munster final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Killian O’Hanlon was only a substitute at this juncture against Tyrone last year but has been a valuable new addition from the start while Liam O’Donovan and Matthew Taylor have offered huge energy from their wing-back slots.

Laois have kept clean sheets in their last two qualifier wins after leaking three goals against Meath. Cork’s last three competitive outings – against Armagh, Limerick and Kerry – have seen them hit the net three times on each occasion. Of those nine goals, Brian Hurley had contributed five to signify a player in form after a wretched streak of injuries. 

The other scoring sector needs work from Cork. Over the course of 11 games in 2019 encompassing the McGrath Cup, the league and Munster championship, Cork have only managed to raise more than 12 white flags on two occasions and both of those were in ties with Limerick.

The Kerry game demonstrated areas that need to be tidied up. Cork didn’t notch a point from play in the first half and when the game was up for grabs in the final quarter, they saw five point attempts prove fruitless with a mix of poor shot selection and execution.

A year ago in O’Moore Park, Ronan McCarthy surveyed the wreckage of Cork’s championship exit.

“We probably need to go a different direction and we’ve hard decisions to make on who we are going to bring on that journey, which starts next Monday.”

A glance at their early league results did not suggest encouragement this year but they had spurned opportunities to mine wins and managed to get some positive outcomes before the close of their Division 2 campaign.

Provincial fare pointed to a higher level of consistency in their displays but Saturday night will be the true test.

Falter at the last 12 stage once more or succeed to reach the last eight? The outcome will go a long way to determining how Cork can rate 2019.

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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