Hurling and camogie

Antrim must take rejuvenated Rebels into trenches or Cork will flood Corrigan Park with scores

Shane Kingston of Cork is tackled by Tipperary players Ronan Maher, left, and Seamus Kennedy.

A TEAM'S fortunes can change in a flash, especially in the round robin hurling Championship, but there was no disguising the dark tone and negative narrative around Cork before they played Waterford in their third Munster SHC match in mid-May. In a nutshell, they looked like a team almost waiting to be put out of their misery.

The anger bubbling after last year's All-Ireland final hammering was brought to the boil after Limerick whipped Cork again in the opening match of this year's Munster Championship. Frustration and hostility was in the red zone after Clare beat them the next time out because the Cork public had turned on the players and management.

Cork had hung their style on a game loaded with risk and ripe to be torn down with any breakdown of the functioning parts. And the machine had stalled.

Outside opinion and perception is irrelevant in any high-performance environment, but it always has some relevance to the Cork hurlers, who are a totally different machine when powered and fuelled by their huge support.

Could Cork get the machine going again? It looked like a tough ask. Cork's confidence was brittle heading into the Waterford match, which was obvious early on as they trailed by four points despite playing with a strong breeze.

Yet once they sensed that Waterford were off the pace, and as soon as Cork got some momentum in the match, the confidence began surging through their veins again. After looking like their season was over, Cork's summer suddenly had huge oxygen again.

The performance against Tipperary in their final match was showbiz stuff. Whenever Cork are in full-flow, when their tails are up and their supporters are buzzing and crackling with excitement and expectation, the team have always been able to plug into that electricity and turn into an irresistible and irrepressible force.

The Champagne comes out and the corks pop all over the field. Tim O'Mahony's goal against Tipperary was a throwback to everything that made Cork hurling what it was, and what everyone in the county is desperate to return to.

In the mind's eye of so many of their supporters, nostalgia and sentiment was dripping from the creation and execution of the finish. From the moment Darragh Fitzgibbon flicked the ball under his feet into the ground to O'Mahony's first time finish, images of what Seanie O'Leary, Jimmy Barry-Murphy and John Fitzgibbon used to regularly do came flooding back.

This Cork team has always been defined by huge levels of skill, class and pace but now that they have married those qualities with the intensity and work-rate in the last two matches that is a baseline requirement just to survive at this level, everything has changed. Suddenly, the dynamic and mood on and off the field is completely different.

For all of Cork's brilliance against Tipp, the stand-out statistic was a Cork forward being back inside his own 45 to win possession as an out-ball option to build the play. Some of those players were there anyway from having tracked a runner or to just work back the field but – similar to the Waterford game – their presence in that area of the field underlined the mindset change from the Limerick and Clare games.

Now that Cork have finally grasped that reality, the structure and balance of the team is far better. Ciaran Joyce has settled in well at centre-back in his first season. Mark Coleman has looked much happier at wing-back, where he is playing higher up the field than he was as a dropping centre-back, and Coleman has

the licence now to be far more creative.

Alan Connolly and Tim O'Mahony have given Cork a much more stable out-ball presence in attack, while Cork are mixing their game up more now and have a much better blend to their style of play. Their running game is still devastating but they are more direct in possession and are certainly less lateral. Their puck-out numbers have also dramatically improved from the Clare and Limerick games.

Key players have returned to form. The bench is making an impact again. And the scores have started to flow. The 3-30 they hit against Tipp was the highest Championship score Cork have hit in normal time since their destruction of Westmeath in the 2019 preliminary quarter-final. It was Cork's highest score against a top nine team over 70 minutes since the 1982 Munster final annihilation of Waterford when they bagged 5-31.

That is the capacity for destruction that Antrim will face in Saturday's preliminary quarter-final. Antrim have been racking up big scores themselves but it has to be a big concern meeting a team with such fire-power when Antrim shipped 4-24 in last Saturday's Joe McDonagh final against Kerry.

This is a decent Antrim team with the potential to score goals. Waterford tore Cork to shreds in the League final but the one constant positive for Cork since the Limerick game is how few goal chances they have coughed up in the meantime; Cork have only conceded two goals in their last three matches.

Antrim have a free shot in this game. All the pressure is on Cork. Antrim have already achieved what they set out to this season. Antrim have sufficient pace in the team to be able to match Cork's running game. Cork have never been to Corrigan Park before but Antrim still need to get the balance right between trying to rack scores and ensuring they're well set up at the back and hard to break down.

Cork have rediscovered their mojo but they can't really be judged until they come up against the kind of savagery and ferocity witnessed in last week's Munster final. Waterford and Tipperary didn't bring that intensity but Cork couldn't handle it when they were faced with it from Clare and Limerick.

Can Antrim bring some of that ferocity on Saturday on their own pitch? They need to try and drag Cork into the trenches. Because if this turns into a total shoot-out, Cork will run away with the match.

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Hurling and camogie