One thing is clear, Cork hurling will never be quiet. Whether performing well or performing poorly, Cork hurling will command attention and column inches. And the turnaround this year has been remarkable in many ways. From a landslide of negativity rolling rapidly down a hill, Cork have managed to climb a mountain not quite as big as Mount Everest, but big enough to prove many doubters wrong.
In terms of personnel, there are a few differences between Cork of 2016 and Cork of 2017 but few could have honestly predicted the turnaround coming so quickly.
The new people in for 2017 are John Meyler as a selector, Gary Keegan as another member of the backroom team, while playing personnel has seen an influx of youth from Daragh Fitzgibbon, Luke Meade and Mark Coleman that has been added to by the returns from injury of Colm Spillane and Michael Cahalane, with up to seven further under-21 panelists joining the senior squad.
A look at the starting team will see many similarities between the team that struggled in 2015 and 2016. But the whole Cork senior panel looks a lot different. This influx of young players, supposedly useless players according to the narrative surrounding Cork’s recent underage publicity, has added a lot to the collective Cork panel and while it has not made drastic changes to the starting fifteen, what is going behind the scenes has improved what has been happening on the field of play.
The mutual word being used by any Cork player or member of management speaking to the media has been ‘freedom’. And it is a pretty good word to reflect how Cork have played in their three championship outings to date.
Every player who has taken to the field for Cork in the 2017 championship has played with complete freedom and abandonment. At a time when hurling has become more systematic, Cork have really bucked that trend so far. Young players like Mark Coleman and Daragh Fitzgibbon have completely let themselves loose in Thurles while maligned players like Damien Cahalane, Christopher Joyce and Mark Ellis have followed a similar path.
The freedom Cork have played with has created a platform for delivering quality ball to their dangerous forward line. Patrick Horgan is now playing hurling with and without the ball. His ball winning, movement, support play and creativity are an indication of the improvements Cork have made. A lot of personnel are the same, but they are getting more out of what is available to them.
Playing with freedom has simply led to a confident Cork. And everyone in GAA knows how dangerous a confident Cork are. No matter who Cork play and no matter who Cork have, Cork hurlers are always a confident team. It can be false confidence and it can be a liability as much as it can be an asset. But 2017 has seen real Cork confidence rise rapidly.
And when Cork are in that substantial confident state, they simply expect to win games. That arrogant mentality makes Cork unpopular in many counties, but it is a known trait that any winning Cork team has possessed.
Despite the air of negativity, Cork played with freedom and confidence in the opening round of the Munster championship against Tipperary and a win that day has transformed everything. The confidence is back in the team and is back in the county as a whole, making Cork well placed to contend for Liam McCarthy in 2017.
Sunday provides a new task but it is one that they have already negotiated successfully in this year’s championship. While a new challenge presents itself, Cork should be looking to change very little. A key element of Cork’s three wins is that the game has been played on their terms and they should not be looking to change this on Sunday.
Cork’s All-Ireland credentials are based on playing with freedom and playing with confidence. This year has completely come down to the collective, initially between players and management, but now it is coming down to players, management and the Cork public.
The collective has been led very well on the pitch by Anthony Nash and Seamus Harnedy. Nash is resembling his all-star form of 2012 and 2013 and his confident stride is back in full flow. While Seamus Harnedy has led the Cork attack impeccably. He may not be making notable scoring contributions but he is setting the tempo at which Cork play with his energy in attack.
The pathway has opened up for Cork. They have negotiated all obstacles in their way in 2017. Sunday presents a great opportunity for the Rebels to put themselves in their first All-Ireland final since 2013. As said earlier, a confident Cork is a dangerous Cork, and they will have full belief in themselves to show that they are capable of winning the 2017 All-Ireland hurling title.