Free of injury and looking fitter, faster and stronger than before, Ruairí Deane’s impressive early season form has been one of the bright spots for Cork this season. KIERAN McCARTHY takes a closer look.
RUAIRÍ Deane has never started a championship game for Cork – but that could all change this year if he keeps up his early season form.
The sum total of the Bantry Blues man’s championship experience for the Rebels is six substitute appearances over three seasons (2014-16) that amount to roughly 50 minutes in total, the first of those back in 2014 cost him ten months of football when he ruptured his ACL in the Munster SFC final loss to Kerry in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
A first-half blood sub that day, he was on the pitch five minutes when his right knee buckled.
(That injury would cost him his 2014 and ’15 inter-county campaigns; he wasn’t 100 per cent physically, and to a degree psychologically after such an injury, when he came back.)
The next time we saw him in championship action was the following June (2015), he came on as a second-half sub (53rd minute for Alan O’Connor) against Clare in the Munster SFC semi-final in Páirc Uí Rinn and he was also a used sub in that infamous drawn Munster final against Kerry in Killarney, introduced after 61 minutes for Fintan Goold.
His 2016 championship experience amounted to three sub appearances – a half-time sub who lasted eight minutes before he was black-carded against Tipperary, a 60th minute sub for Alan O’Connor against Limerick in the qualifier and a 70th minute replacement for O’Connor as Cork beat Longford in the next round.
Given his lack of sustained exposure to the top level, the jury was and still is out as to whether Deane can cut it at championship level. That’s a fair comment given that we haven’t seen enough of him at the highest grade, in the cut and thrust of summer Sundays, to form an educated verdict.
If 2014 and ’15 can be written off because of the cruciate injury – and he suffered from a few niggles in his hamstring in his right leg off the back of that – his inter-county career only really started in earnest last year when Peadar Healy came in as manager.
Since then, Deane has had eight starts and eight substitute appearances under Healy – he has started all five McGrath Cup games in the past two seasons, started once and was a sub five times in last year’s league and was a used sub three times in the 2016 championship. The PE teacher in Castletownbere has started the last two league games (v Galway and Kildare), and all of Cork’s matches this year including two in the McGrath Cup (scoring two points against Tipperary) – and the 25-year-old looks fitter, stronger and faster than ever.
Off the back of his recent run, he’s also more confident than before and that confidence is growing.
‘I don’t think we have seen his full potential yet,’ Bantry Blues boss Arthur Coakley said.
‘We played Rockchapel in the league last Sunday and he was outstanding. Even the Rockchapel lads were looking at him, trying to figure out what they could do with him. He dominated midfield and scored a goal.
‘His power is unbelievable, as is his ability to field and his pace is impressive. He’s a strong player and the sky is the limit for him, if he can stay injury free and get a bit of luck.’
What we are seeing now is an injury-free Deane who is feeling and going better this year than ever before, but there’s no secret to this; he’s just looking after himself and feeling the benefit of getting 2016 under his belt without any serious setbacks.
He’s also home in Bantry a lot more these times, having finished his Masters’ in teaching in UL last year. Living and working locally gives him a routine.
It’s worth remembering too that Deane, Bantry Blues’ best player, captained the Cork juniors to Munster and All-Ireland football titles back in 2013, scoring 2-6 from midfield that campaign. That same year he was named Munster GAA Junior Footballer of the Year.
But then came 2014, his league debut and then the cruciate injury that robbed him of two seasons.
‘Injuries took their toll on him before – but he is 25 per cent better now than he was last year. We hope the rest of the country can see how good he is,’ adds Arthur Coakley.
Deane also lines out for the Carbery divisional team and their manager Gene O’Driscoll says: ‘It’s only now that his confidence is beginning to come back after his cruciate injury. It’s not playing on his mind anymore.
‘Certainly there has been an improvement in him. He’s focussing on his football and doing all the right things. He was Cork’s best player in the Kildare game. He’ll grow in confidence, there’s more to come from him.
‘He’s a big strapping young fella, he has a good left leg on him, he is a good passer of the ball and he can finish.
‘It looks like Cork want him to play deeper in a defensive midfield role and that seems to suit him. His best position is to come onto the ball at pace and take people on. He is happiest when he is going at people, he is strong on the burst.’
Deane started the year well but he knows that when Alan O’Connor returns for Cork, his spot in midfield will be under pressure, given that Ian Maguire is almost first choice there now; Maguire has started every game under Peadar Healy. Deane doesn’t want to be O’Connor’s understudy so he needs to take his chances before the St Colum’s giant returns. Deane and O’Connor add the physical presence, Maguire and Aidan Walsh the guile so there are options there now in an area that has had its shortcomings the past few years.
Of Deane’s eight starts under Peadar Healy, five have come in midfield, three at wing forward, and there are differing opinions as to the Bantry man’s best position – but he has the versatility of playing in midfield or wing forward.
Look at some of the evidence this season: against Galway in the league opener, he rose above three others and fielded a Galway kick-out in midfield, attacked up the left hand side and kicked over a fine effort from out near the sideline to push Cork 1-10 to 0-12 in front.
He’s big, powerful and athletic – and his injury-free run has also seen him regain the speed and mobility he lost in 2014 and ’15. The general feeling is that he is fitter now than ever before.
Deane still has some way to go to prove himself as a championship starter for Cork but after a lacklustre opening by Healy’s men in Division 2 of the league, he has been one of the few bright spots.
More of the same and that first championship start might be just around the corner.