Revamped Rebels to quell the rise of a new Deise
ALLIANZ LEAGUE HURLING DIVISION ONE FINAL
CORK v WATERFORD
(Thurles, Tomorrow 3.30 live TG4)
BRIAN FLANNERY was a tasty corner-back in his day, so it was intriguing to hear the ex-Déise's assessment of Cork's prolific powers but also defensive strength ahead of tomorrow's Allianz Hurling League final.
"You look at players like (Séamus) Harnedy, Patrick Horgan, Conor Lehane, Alan Cadogan - they've some of the best forwards in the country," he told The Herald. "But they have probably one of the poorest defences in the country..."
That, in a nutshell, is the biggest conundrum facing Jimmy Barry-Murphy - and fence-sitting pundits - when trying to figure out how Cork will deal with Waterford's young band of reputation-shredding upstarts.
Judging from Thursday's team, JBM has gone some way to tackle what Flannery perceives to be Cork's Achilles heel, with one positional and three personnel changes in defence.
While two of the half-back alterations can be attributed to players returning from illness (Mark Ellis) and injury (Cormac Murphy), a far more noteworthy switch happens at full-back.
No 3 has been a problem position for Cork since Christopher Joyce tore his cruciate against Dublin back in March. Against the same opposition Damien Cahalane suffered a semi-final chasing from the lightning and elusive Mark Schutte; this explains how the versatile Aidan Ryan has been propelled straight into the team for his first start of the year, having impressed in a weekend challenge against Kilkenny.
Still, his sudden elevation puts into perspective Cork's relative dearth of defensive options - whereas up front they have livewire forwards who can kill you with multiple point-scoring incisions, and sometimes with goals.
They have amassed 10-158 on their seven-game trek to the final, including eye-catching tallies such as 0-34 against Dublin, 4-21 against Tipperary (in defeat, now there's a lesson!) and 1-27, again against the Dubs.
That semi-final comeback showcased the best and worst of Cork, who were steamrolled for the first quarter and struggled to reel in Dublin until a spectacular grandstand finish.
They can't afford any such oscillating repeats tomorrow because Waterford's defence - visibly supplemented by teammates from midfield and even attack - has choked the life out of several vaunted rivals.
In finishing ahead of both Limerick and Wexford to top Division 1B, they confounded the local pessimists after a - let's be blunt - pretty disastrous first season under Derek McGrath. In then wiping the floor with Galway but especially in edging out Tipperary having trailed by seven, they reaffirmed their status as Team of the League.
For all the 'Donegal' comparisons, they have tallied 10-152 - just six points less than Cork - albeit the 1B opposition and especially the 4-30 chalked up against a woeful Antrim should be factored in. More significantly, the concession of just 5-95 from a defence in which the half-backs have consistently excelled crystallises the challenge now facing Cork.
Forewarned, JBM might also be forearmed to claim a first league title since 1998 - before Munster battle resumes in June.
ODDS: Cork 4/7 Draw 9/1 Waterford 7/4