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"This time last year an All-Ireland was ten years away from us, or so we all thought,”

- Cork hurling legend Ben O'Connor

Author: Media GPA/10 August 2017/Categories: Year 2015, Year 2016

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"This time last year an All-Ireland was ten years away from us, or so we all thought,” - Cork hurling legend Ben O'Connor



There are many aspects of Cork's play during the 2017 championship that bare little resemblance to the two years previous but Rebel legend Ben O'Connor is quick to make the case for defence.

Getting scores has never been an issue for Kieran Kingston's side but conceding them has. The bolts have been severely tightened in recent months, however, and O'Connor lays much of the praise at one man's feet.

Millstreet is not renowned for its hurlers but in Mark Ellis, they have unearthed a gem with two-time All-Star O'Connor believing that he has alleviated the pressure on their "overworked" full-back and allowed them to thrive. 

"Mark Ellis is really after standing up this year. I would have been critical of Mark before, a big strong lad like him I thought he was very loose with fellas running in past him, this year he's after getting way more physical and growing into the No 6 spot," O'Connor tells

"He's one of the main reasons because that half-back line is dominating and keeping the ball out. Then inside you have Damien Cahalane, he's gotten a lot of stick the last few years but I never thought he was the problem. 

"I just thought they were overworked in the full-back line but the half-back line are stopping a lot going in and taking the pressure off them. They're playing so well inside that anything that comes in they're meeting it at 100 miles an hour."

O'Connor picked up three All-Ireland medals during an illustrious Cork career with the much-acclaimed half-back line of John Gardiner, Ronan Curran and Seán Óg Ó hAilpín driving them forward at every opportunity for two of those successes.

He sees huge similarities with the current crop of Chris Joyce, Ellis and Mark Coleman who are continuously provide a springboard to attack but the efficient link play between defence and attack has also impressed him immensely.

"When we were going well there wasn't a ball passing Sean Óg, Gardiner or Curran and when it did you had the likes of 'Sully' (current selector Diarmuid O'Sullivan) coming out and fellas were worried when he was coming out because he was hitting hard," O'Connor says.

"Our half-back line took so much pressure off our full-back line, they were winning it in the air, they were winning it on the ground and Cork have been badly caught in the half-back line the last two years whereas this year they are after strengthening up a lot.

"Mark Coleman is a serious addition coming in playing the way he is but as a unit in general, Cork are poles apart from other years and Damien Cahalane breaking out against Clare in the Munster final was a prime example of that. 

"He runs and he runs with the sliotar, if that was last year when Damien got to the middle of the field there's a good chance he would have taken a shot. Great score if it goes over but if it goes wide you're under pressure again. But Damien kept going. 

"He popped a ball down to Luke O’Farrell and it just shows how they're all in tune with one another. Luke popped it to 'Hoggy' (Patrick Horgan) on the loop around and it was over the bar, that just shows you the difference. 

"Our backs are playing with our forwards as opposed to against them like the last few years. Previously, if they got 60-70 yards from goal the half-backs were having a shot whereas this year they're finding the forwards in front and playing as a unit. 

"The backs know the shooters are down the other end of the field and it's down to the management team and the strength and conditioning team that they can keep playing that style of game for 70 minutes because they're absolutely hopping off the ground."

Horgan and Conor Lehane have taken much of the plaudits for their attacking displays en route to Munster glory with O'Connor praising how both have been handled by Kingston this year as he tries to extract the maximum from the talented pair.

"Hoggy has plenty of hurling the whole time, everyone knows that about Hoggy but Hoggy's biggest problem for a few years was his work-rate. Give the ball to Hoggy and there's going to be a score coming out of it but it should be a given for inter-county that you should have to work," the 2004 All-Ireland-winning captain says.

"I suppose Hoggy got a bit complacent and a bit lazy and Kieran and the boys handled him well. For the first round of Munster they took him off the frees and made him work to get his few scores. Then when things were working and he was getting his few scores they put him back on the frees again.

"His work-rate has been there ever since. I suppose they drew it out of him, if your work-rate is there, you'll get your frees and your few points from play and we'll be happy with that."

"With Conor Lehane, the best thing that's happened him is that he was put into the centre. When he was on the wing you could be watching a game and think this guy is unbelievable and then turn away and watch it for another ten minutes and think this guy is doing nothing.

"Now he's at centre-forward, he's involved the whole time. It gives him more freedom and he can cover the whole field. He's in his proper position and he's around where the ball is breaking and he's thriving. 

"He's playing to the system, he's not shooting from out the field the whole time like maybe in the past and he's delivering ball into the forwards when he should. He knows when to shoot and when to pass it and he's making the forward line tick."

Sunday's All-Ireland semi-final clash with Waterford will be up another few notches from their three championship wins thus far and very few know the unique challenge which the Déise will offer better than the Newtownshandrum attacker. 

Their epic duels from the noughties are regarded as some of the greatest games ever played but O'Connor feels that this current Waterford crop must go man on man in attack and ditch the sweeper system if they are to book their first final place since 2008.

"When we were playing against Waterford they could have played with five forwards because their forwards were so good, they had the class of Paul Flynn and Dan Shanahan and the pace of John Mullane and Eoin Kelly and all of them were able to take a score.

"Waterford's forwards now aren't quite up to that level and it's a drawback to them. If Waterford are to have any chance they have to play six forwards. I don't think their forwards are that good that they can play a sweeper in defence and suffer the effects of it in attack."

The heart will always rule the head when it comes to predictions but O'Connor is confident that the Rebels can book a final date with Galway, something he scarcely considered 12 months ago.

"I remember Kieran on the radio last year saying that it was a project they were working on and at the time you'd say 'the project would want to hurry up a bit' but they're after bringing in the few new players and it's after gelling," he says.

"It's amazing what a few wins will do for you. The mood has changed in Cork, people were saying 'oh we're down for a while' but it's after turning around. This time last year an All-Ireland was ten years away from us, or so we all thought.

"If Cork zone in on their game, forget about whatever Waterford are doing because with the way Cork are playing at the moment, it's very hard to mark when they're forwards are working together and running into space, even when the ball isn't coming.

"Once they're tuned in and play to form, they'll be hard to beat."




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