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JOHN HAYES: Rebels must show their ruthless streak

April 4th, 2024 8:30 AM

By Southern Star Team

Brian O'Driscoll has developed into a key link player for the Rebels. (Photo: David Ribeiro)

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INDULGE me for a moment with a quick look back at the Division 1 football final between Derry and Dublin. This was a classic. There’s a lot of negativity attached to football yet, with some notable exceptions, I have been largely entertained by the majority of games I have seen at club and county level these past couple of years. 

We talk down our product too much at times, and the fare is improving as teams work out how to break down the packed defences in front of them. All sports constantly evolve, and football is no different, but we have a great game, and we would do well to remember that sometimes. 

Hopefully the championship summer ahead will provide further entertainment along the lines of last Sunday, and I have SuperValu Páirc Uí Chaoimh in mind this weekend, as Cork footballers begin their 2024 Munster championship campaign against Limerick.

The pressure is on Cork to secure a convincing win against the team that finished bottom of Division 3 without a point to their name. Last year’s reversal to Clare at this same stage and previous close encounters against the Treaty footballers should ensure that complacency is not prevalent this weekend, but nonetheless Cork must bear the pressure of expectation of success on our home patch without too much fuss. 

Cork’s revival in the latter stages of the league has restored some confidence, and injuries to Rory Maguire, Killian O’Hanlon and Cathail O’Mahony aside, the squad appears to be in good shape after the strong March showings and the four-day training camp in Portugal. 

Cork look to have a mostly settled team. Micheál Aodh Martin’s injury-curtailed Spring opened the door of opportunity for Patrick Doyle and Chris Kelly, and while both advanced their case at different times, I expect Martin has enough credit in the bank to retain the No. 1 jersey. Daniel O’Mahony and Tommy Walsh will man two berths in the full-back line, and a strong outing against Armagh means Maurice Shanley will likely edge out Kevin Flahive for the other spot. The number five jersey was up for grabs until Luke Fahy put his name on it for certain in the games against Meath and Armagh, raiding forward for crucial points against Meath and a fine goal against the northerners. 

Word on the street is that Rory Maguire won’t win his race to be fit, so Sean Meehan will likely man the number six position. Meehan was outstanding for Cork during my short stint as a selector in 2021, and while he hasn’t kicked on since being named as a joint captain in 2022, he is a very honest player who looks to be regaining his form. 

The redoubtable Matty Taylor is a fixture now at seven and he offers Cork vital balance and attacking verve from the position, while also being defensively solid and a great outlet for short and medium kick-outs. His lack of height may be his only real weakness, but he makes up for this with his tenacity. Defensive cover is provided by Flahive, Darragh Cashman and Thomas Clancy.

Two more certainties to start are Ian Maguire and Colm O’Callaghan at midfield. Colm may well have been Cork’s player of the league campaign, regularly bursting forward to create and take scores. He is a powerful man, very difficult to stop when he gets a head of steam up, has improved aerially also and is now the number one target for the long kick-outs. O’Callaghan’s emergence has allowed Maguire to adapt his game slightly as the more defensive partner. Maguire’s work-rate has always been immense, and he lets it all out there every time for the red jersey. It’s not the tallest midfield in the country, but they will beat most midfielders on the ground. Let’s hope Cork’s settled midfield can win their battle on Sunday and give the Rebels a platform to succeed. Cover at midfield can be provided by Paul Walsh and Ruairi Deane in the absence of Killian O’Hanlon.

Up front, the No. 10 jersey is the one that no one has quite nailed as their own just yet. Eoghan McSweeney held the position for the early stages of the league before Paul Walsh took over in the last couple of games with Ruairi Deane also in the mix when he has been fit. All three offer different strengths in the 10 role depending on how a game is going, however it’s possible Walsh’s athleticism and ability to win kick-outs will gain him the selection given that Deane missed the Armagh game entirely. Injuries meant my fellow Ross man John O’Rourke was unavailable for a chunk of the league, and he hasn’t forced his way back into the picture yet. 

Sean Powter will hold off Mark Cronin for the number 11 position and hopefully he can use his dynamism to cut through the Limerick rearguard in the exciting manner that he is capable of. Powter is a fan favourite when he runs at opponents and we just hope he stays fit now long enough to show his full potential. New Carrigaline club man Brian O’Driscoll will start at 12, and will hope to bring the best of his league form into the championship. O’Driscoll combined high work-rate with a scoring threat during the league and more of the same is the ask for this weekend. 

The full-forward line is predictable, with Chris Óg Jones ranking alongside Colm O’Callaghan and Brian O’Driscoll as the top Cork performers in the league. The Iveleary forward top scored from play across all Division 2 with 2-15 in seven games and is a real livewire. While his finishing can occasionally be erratic, he creates a lot of opportunities for himself and others with his movement and direct running. 

I would like to see him stay closer to goal as he did in the second half against Armagh rather than always having to drop deep into the defensive structure Cork deploy. I can say the same for Conor Corbett, who is the great white hope for Cork forward play for the next decade. There is big expectation on him, but I believe he has the talent, the physique and the confidence to bear the burden. Like Chris Óg Jones, the Clyda man is a real goal threat. We are looking forward to this man emerging into the national consciousness over the summer ahead all going well. 

Lastly, in the 15 jersey will be Brian Hurley. He is another who has put his body through the ringer for the red jersey, and he isn’t done just yet. The emergence of Corbett and Jones takes a deal of pressure off the Castlehaven man and may just open up some opportunities to flourish. We know what Hurley is capable of in this county and would love to see him remind people why he was so highly rated for so long. He is essentially job-sharing with Steven Sherlock in the 15 role and as free-taker and we can expect that direct change somewhere around the 50th minute once again on Sunday. Sherlock is one of the finishers for Cork coming from the bench now and has performed well in the role, ensuring there is no decrease in threat when a change has to be made inside. Unfortunately, Cathail O’Mahony is not available again to give us a fifth serious option in this area. 

Ultimately, it’s a Cork squad that is more than capable of beating Limerick on Sunday with a little bit to spare. By nature, I am slow to ever suggest Cork will have a comfortable day, but we cannot ignore Limerick’s league results. Being straight, Cork must put Limerick to the sword ruthlessly if we are to look forward to a good championship summer. The likes of Iain Corbett and Danny Neville will lead the Limerick resistance, but I see Cork being too strong and winning by six or more. Corcaigh abú.

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