Saturday 28 January 2023 Dublin: 4°C
Cathal Noonan/INPHO Jimmy Barry-Murphy has plenty to think about ahead of the championship
# Rebel fallout
Can Cork hurlers bounce back from League final mauling to become summer contenders?
League final defeat to Waterford is a major setback just five weeks out from championship meeting

SUNDAY’S HEAVY ALLIANZ Hurling League final defeat to Waterford at Semple Stadium exposed a number of flaws in the Cork set-up.

Aidan Ryan was drafted into the starting line-up for a first competitive intercounty outing since 2010 and while he did very little wrong, tinkering with such a key position this late in the year smacks of panic.

Christopher Joyce’s cruciate knee ligament injury robs Cork of an alternative at full-back and management are obviously unsure about Damien Cahalane on the edge of the square.

Naturally enough, Cork were anxious to ensure that Ryan wasn’t isolated to a large degree against Waterford and while Maurice Shanahan stole in for an early point, the Midleton clubman generally held firm and it was something of a surprise to see him called ashore in the second half.

Cormac Murphy drifted back to provide cover in front of Ryan and in the first half in particular, it was also noticeable how Murphy dropped behind Ryan when long balls were lobbed into the Cork goalmouth, available to pick up the crumbs if any dropped.

Even goalkeeper Anthony Nash appeared to be struck by Sunday’s overall malaise, letting in a sloppy goal in a cameo moment that is alien to his make-up.

On a wider scale, the Cork team appeared to lack true balance and Aidan Walsh’s form at midfield, or lack thereof, is another big concern.

Stephen Bennett and Aidan Walsh Cathal Noonan / INPHO Aidan Walsh struggled against Waterford on Sunday Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

Cork need Walsh firing on all cylinders to make an impact on the championship but right now, he’s a shadow of the dynamic, athletic player who lit up the Gaelic Grounds in that memorable Munster U21 final against Limerick in 2011.

League and championship are different animals but it’s difficult to turn form on and off like a tap and Cork have a mountain of work to get through over the next five weeks before meeting Waterford again on June 7.

The six starting forwards on Sunday managed just nine points from play between them, with five of those fired over by Conor Lehane, and Patrick Horgan was brilliantly shackled, not for the first time, by Noel Connors.

Cork were unlucky not to register a couple of goals when Seamus Harnedy forced a brilliant save from Stephen O’Keeffe in the first half before Lehane struck the crossbar in the second.

But we traditionally associate Cork with goals and since sticking four past Tipperary in March, they’ve pretty much dried up.

The Leesiders failed to rattle the Wexford net, managed one green flag in the victory over Dublin but were shut out again on Sunday.

Noel Connors and Patrick Horgan Cathal Noonan / INPHO Noel Connors (right) held Cork's Patrick Horgan scoreless from play in the League final Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

All is not lost, of course, and Cork will feel they are capable of turning things around in time for the championship.

When they lost the League final to Kilkenny in 2012, the Rebels regrouped to reach an All-Ireland semi-final.

They went one step better a year later, unlucky not to claim victory at the first time of asking against Clare, but the heavy 2014 semi-final defeat at the hands of Tipperary represented a major setback.

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And if Waterford are a team heading very much in the right direction, Cork seem to be stuck in reverse, or in neutral at best.

When the sides met in last year’s Munster SHC quarter-final replay, Cork won by 14 points.

Sunday’s League decider saw ten points separate the teams but Waterford were the clear winners on this occasion.

Cork team Cathal Noonan / INPHO This Cork team had the better of Waterford in 2014 but the tide has turned Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

In the space of eleven months, Waterford completed a 24-point turnaround and that’s a statistic that simply cannot be ignored, particularly with another championship meeting just around the corner.

Cork, as reigning Munster champions, remain second favourites behind Tipperary with the bookies to win the provincial title in July.

Waterford, despite their League success, are priced at 7-2, with Cork on offer at 3-1.

The old saying goes that the bookies rarely get it wrong but they may have on this occasion, with Waterford available at even money to beat Cork in the forthcoming encounter.

Open heart surgery on the Cork team is hardly an option at this point in time but JBM may need the keyhole option if his side is to recover quickly from a damaging loss.

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