LAST WORD COLUMN BY SPORTS EDITOR KIERAN McCARTHY
EPHIE Fitzgerald won’t have lost any night’s sleep this week.
Cork’s impressive run of 13 successive Munster senior football final appearances from 2004-2016 is over – but the Rebel ladies boss saw enough in the defeat to Kerry last Saturday evening to stay positive for the future.
Heading in to what was effectively a provincial semi-final at Fitzgerald Stadium last weekend off the back of a poor performance in the loss to Waterford two weeks previously, the Cork manager wanted to see a reaction from his team.
He got that against Kerry.
Six points down early in the second half, Cork dug deep to take control and surge three points in front before the concession of two late goals knocked the reigning Munster champions out (2-15 to 2-13).
‘Our reaction in the second half was fantastic and but for a couple of individual errors we could have won the game – that was probably a lack of experience on the day,’ Fitzgerald reflected.
It was a lack of experience that cost Cork against Kerry, a failure to shut up shop and close out the game once they hit the front – but there’s not a team in the country, apart from the Rebels, that could sustain their current player drain and still stay competitive.
In 2016 Cork’s most high-profile retirement was Valerie Mulcahy, but this season the current All-Ireland champions won Division 1 of the national league without a host of serial All-Ireland winners, Rena Buckley (focussing on camogie), Deirdre O’Reilly (retired), and Briege Corkery and Vera Foley (both also unlikely to be involved in the championship).
Not only that, Cork lined out against Kerry with only eight players that started last year’s All-Ireland final win against Dublin, with Ciara and Doireann O’Sullivan (the latter is now back training) both missing last weekend while Orlagh Farmer was a very late sub.
‘Losing that many players has been a shock to the system,’ Fitzgerald admitted.
‘The experience those players had probably dragged Cork over the line on countless occasions in games they won by one or two points. They didn’t panic in the big moments of a game.
‘Winning the league this season was fantastic but it will take time to get used to the transition. It’s a learning experience.’
In the run-up to the Kerry game Bríd Stack, Cork’s most experienced player, had missed a few weeks with an Achilles injury.
Only two forwards – All-Star Orla Finn from Kinsale and Beara’s Áine O’Sullivan – that started last Saturday began the All-Ireland final.
These aren’t excuses. They’re facts.
It can’t be undersold the level of experience that this team has suddenly lost so the new recruits need time to acclimatise to senior football and patience to learn the game at the highest level and also develop physically to cope with the demands.
This is a transitional phase that’s going to have bumps along the way, just like losing back-to-back championship games for the first time since 2013.
No team wants to lose, especially one as dominant as Cork that has won 11 of the last 12 All-Irelands and the last six in a row, but look at the bigger picture here: Ephie Fitzgerald has given youth its fling this year and the results have been very encouraging.
Young guns like Dohenys’ Melissa Duggan, Bantry Blues’ Emma Spillane (who sat her Leaving Cert this summer), Beara’s Niamh Cotter have all made their championship debuts, while Éire Óg’s Eimear Scally, Eimear Meaney and Bríd O’Sullivan of Mourneabbey and Inch Rovers’ Jess O’Shea are others that are now getting more game time than before.
They’ll get better with each game and what’s telling was the improvement in intensity from the Waterford defeat in Dungarvan to last Saturday night – that positive reaction and how competitive Cork were are reasons why Fitzgerald isn’t unduly worried about heading into the All-Ireland qualifiers and taking the scenic route to the business end of the season.
He can see the positives – and there still are plenty.
If anything, the more games this team plays together, the more experience they’ll get and the better they’ll become.
They just need time.
Despite the last two losses no team will want to draw Cork in the qualifiers next month.
Beware the wounded Rebels with players to come back in (Ciara and Doireann O’Sullivan and Orlagh Farmer).