RUAIRI Deane was late in buying his ticket to the biggest show in town – but he’s making up for lost time now.
He was 25 when he started his first championship match for Cork. It was a Munster SFC clash against Waterford in May 2017. The previous winter, the Bantry man contemplated walking away from inter-county football. That was late 2016. He was fed up with it. Frustrated. He wasn’t making any sort of impact.
Between his first season in 2014 and 2016 the total of his championship experience barely added up to 50 minutes spread across six sub appearances in those campaigns.
There are reasons for that. He was a late developer. Never played minor but did win an U21 All-Ireland medal. 2014 was his breakthrough season at senior level – but Deane tore his cruciate as a first-half blood sub during the 2014 Munster final. That set him back for longer than anyone could have imagined. It played on his mind for the next few years, to the point in the winter of 2016 he stood at a crossroads: stick or twist, commit or walk away.
‘I was coming to a stage where it was going one way or another,’ Deane told The Southern Star ahead of the 2018 Munster final.
‘I was either going to say “this is not for me” and I was going to start thinking of something else because I hadn’t really got anywhere with it.
‘Or it was a case of “I’ll give it my all” and see where that takes me.’
‘I wouldn’t say I doubted myself but I wasn’t getting what I wanted out of it so I did question where I was going.’
In the end – and a wise decision – Deane stayed.
He hadn’t achieved what he wanted to. He felt there was a lot more in him that no-one had seen. He put the head down that winter and worked harder than ever before. The Bantry man gave it absolutely everything. He started looking after himself better too; being back home in Bantry and working as a teacher in Castletownbere helped. He hasn’t looked back since.
Since that winter, Deane’s career has been on fast forward and he has progressed up through the various levels – from bit-part player to regular to core group member – and has now matured into one of the leaders this team needs.
Each year he has improved. Against Tipperary in the 2018 Munster SFC semi-final, Cork manager Ronan McCarthy hailed him as ‘truly magnificent’. Deane was Cork’s best player in last year’s Munster final loss to Kerry, setting up Cork’s two goals before he was black-carded late in the first half. The Bantry Blues man was also Cork’s top performer last season. He’s gone up another level again this year. He’s 27 now and hitting his peak – but Ronan McCarthy feels there’s more to come.
After watching Deane run the Kerry defence ragged in Saturday night’s Munster final, McCarthy said: ‘I think Ruairi, and I’m not exaggerating, is heading in the direction where he’s in the top ten players in the country. Certainly he could become top three. He has gone to another level, he had a good duel with Gavin White but as the game went on Ruairi came stronger and stronger into the game when we needed him. It’s what I expect from him at this stage.’
Whether or not Deane can be classed as top ten in the country right now is debatable, but he’s finding a consistency in excellence that is making him the go-to man in this Cork team.
The evidence these past few weeks is compelling. Deane is at his strongest when he is coming on to the ball at pace. That’s when he is at his happiest and most influential. He is a strong and aggressive runner who is hard to stop.
He’s also deceptively fast for a big unit. Fitness levels have soared through the roof, too. He’ll bulldoze his way through most defences.
Kerry’s creaked badly before he blasted the hinges off the door to their back lines and exposed their frailties to the rest of the country. They couldn’t handle his power. His energy, desire, directness caused them problems all night. He ran hard at Kerry time and time again – and he had plenty of joy.
Deane should have scored at least one goal, too. In the first half, after bursting past three Kerry defenders he was one-on-one with the Kingdom goalkeeper but his powerful shot was straight at Shane Ryan. It was a moment that needed subtlety. In the second half, he slalomed through the Kerry defence again and, though he probably should have opted for a point, barged into the square, but his shot was blocked.
Deane is leading by example in a team that has been crying out for leaders to grab this group by the scruff of the neck in recent years. They’ve lost huge characters in the last few years and it’s no secret that standards have slipped in recent seasons.
Former Cork star Donncha O’Connor lamented in The Irish Examiner last weekend that the culture in the Cork squad in recent times wasn’t what it should have been.
He said: ‘What used to really irritate me was you’d be doing a fitness test and fellas would pull up two or three yards away from the line … I look back now on certain things that happened through the years that would not have happened in (Conor Counihan’s time).’
Senior players like Deane cannot allow that to happen anymore. If Cork want to become a power again and arrest the decline, they need to demand total commitment and 100 per cent effort. Deane, Paul Kerrigan, Mark Collins, James Loughrey, Brian Hurley, these are the experienced men that need to drive standards. They did that on the pitch on Saturday night.
And look at the result. It was the performance that Cork football needed.
But what Deane needs, and Cork need, is more games against Division 1 opposition like Kerry. That will highlight the areas they need to work on. That’s why the Super 8s would be so important to this team’s development. It’s three high-intensity games in a championship environment. Five-in-a-row chasing Dublin and Connacht champs Roscommon are two of the teams Cork will face if they get past Round 4 of the qualifiers.
If they get there, that’s the platform that Deane can use to move to the next level up and fulfil the prediction that his manager has made.
But as influential as the Castletownbere PE teacher is, there are still areas he needs to improve – his decision-making, for one.
He did score a tidy goal against Limerick after one of his now trademark jink, jive and solo runs, but against the Treaty County and Kerry he also missed goal chances that he had created for himself. He did all the hard work but poor decisions let him down.
Against Limerick Deane should have passed. Against Kerry he should have taken a point. They’re the little margins that will cost Cork as the stakes are raised. He should have three goals in two games – but has only one. But he’s constantly learning and trying to improve.
‘There’s still a long journey yet, I’m not the finished article in anyway, I’m changing and developing, I’m not where I want to be yet but hopefully I am on the right path,’ Deane told us last year.
He’s on the right path too. And his decision to fully commit to Cork football in the winter of 2016 is paying off now for him and the county.