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Comment & Analysis | Sport

Cork hurling’s worrying slide continues

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Kilkenny’s Michael Fennelly under pressure from Conor Lehane of Cork

MR HYDE accepted Dr Jekyll’s invitation to the National Hurling League in 2013.

It’s been that sort of season so far, and no team subscribes to the Jekyll and Hyde scenario more than Cork.

They’ve slid from top to the bottom, but are they set to fall down further still?

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Clare had a little taste of the cream on top, but finished level on points with the basement dwellers.

Waterford, yeah, they were looking down on the rest, but finished in limbo: the nothingness of fourth spot.

As you were at the top then, with Tipperary, Kilkenny and Galway ahead of the pretenders.

But for late collapses, the Rebels would have finished above each of them.

They only lost to Kilkenny by two points, you say, 0-20 to 2-12. Accepting that, it must be pointed out that they now have blundered in winning positions against Waterford (two points up late on with a wind behind them), Clare (when seven ahead), and Kilkenny (three up with 20-odd minutes left).

Against the Cats, they simply stopped, or were stopped. Luke O’Farrell had just buried a goal on 48 minutes after a clever assist by Stephen Moylan and Cian McCarthy had an effort blocked down just after but, far from spurring them on, the chain then came off. Kilkenny had each of the next 10 shots at goal, turning a three-point deficit into a 0-16 to 1-11 lead by the 62nd minute.

Cork put up a bit of a fight for a little bit and Patrick Horgan tapped over a free but the Cats rattled off three scores through Richies Power and Hogan, and Colin Fennelly — the latter who is beginning to come back to his old self. Conor Lehane’s goal, while well taken after a lovely direct run from Horgan, merely candied a bitter pill. The Rebels had let this game pass them by.

Just as they had against Clare when, from 0-12 to 0-7 up at half time, they fell apart as the Banner won the second period 1-15 to 1-4. Why are Cork tripping up from winning positions? It’s hard to say but their lovely short passing game might be letting them down as players tire, or maybe it’s lack of depth on the bench as the games wear on. Which is amazing to say after how they destroyed Tipp on day one.

When Jimmy Barry-Murphy needed to try something new at Nowlan Park, he threw on big Michael Cussen — the Sarsfield man did okay but his presence seems incongruous with Cork’s nippy style. From plan A to plan Z, it felt. Still, it’s not all bad for JBM and they still have something to play for.

As for plus points, the word exceptional came to mind when Eoin Murphy made an excellent save from Horgan inside 20 seconds. Yes, that superlative refers to the stop but also to the mindset of the Rebels attacker who looked at one in the hand and favoured three in the bush. Murphy denied him but there was such conviction in how Horgan steamed clear of marker Jackie Tyrrell and went straight for the house. Cork have often been criticised for not going for the jugular, so this may be the beginning of a fresh departure for them.

It’s not often that a team beats Kilkenny without scoring more goals than them and it says it all that the last time this was done was on May 1 2011, when Dublin won the league final 0-22 to 1-7 against a Cats side shorn of All Stars. In 2012, Cork and Galway managed to beat Kilkenny in the league and Leinster final respectively when matching Brian Cody’s side for goals, but that’s it in recent times. The point being: you need goals to beat Kilkenny because they are so good at splitting the posts.

Cork may have lost and precisely because the Cats were so good at finding white flags, but at least the Rebels stated that they wanted green flags good and early. Unusually Kilkenny didn’t manage a green flag and that was the second time in five games that this has happened, after Galway kept a clean sheet in game one.

Kilkenny may well ask what’s happening with their forwards right now because again they underwhelmed at times. In the first half, all six — and seven if you include Richie Power who came on in the 27th minute for Ger Aylward — combined for a grand total of 0-1; and that came from full-forward Colin Fennelly in added time. The other scores came from Eoin Larkin frees, midfielder Lester Ryan, the impressive Michael Fennelly, and Tommy Walsh.

Things improved though because Richie Hogan hit four in the second half and Power threw over two from play after hitting three strangely woeful wides when under no pressure. That’s not a criticism of Kilkenny’s attacking threat in an overall sense because they’ve nothing left to prove — and have Henry Shefflin and TJ Reid to come back in.

But to simply insist that they are flying as always would be to ignore four of their starting forwards not scoring from play, and the indifferent shooting of a number of sharpshooters in admittedly unsuitable weather. The excellence of their backs and midfield has turned a near relegation battle into a possible league title.

The beauty of this season is that no team looks bullet proof right now. Galway meet the Cats next and you couldn’t really call it at this point. Tipperary will play the winners of Dublin v Limerick and none of those three teams have been consistently excellent either — even if you have to fancy the Premier County.

Five rounds in and we’re none the wiser, even if the fancied names are the ones still sniffing around the silverware.

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Shane Stapleton is the Irish Post's GAA hurling columnist. Follow Shane on Twitter @shanesaint

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