Ó hAilpín says Cork developing quicker than he’d expected
Former All-Ireland-winning captain wary of a Clare side assisted by Donal Óg Cusack
Cork’s Mark Coleman scores a sideline cut against Waterford. He has made a huge impression in his first season as a senior intercounty player. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Cork fans in good voice as they celebrate a point against Waterford at Semple Stadium. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho
Among the delighted Cork supporters on Sunday in Thurles was the county’s former All-Ireland-winning captain and Hurler of the Year Sean Óg Ó hAilpín.
He could take additional satisfaction from the impact of three of the team’s youngest stars – Shane Kingston, Mark Coleman and Darragh Fitzgibbon – all of whom he has helped to train for UCC’s Freshers team.
Speaking after the launch in Dublin of GAA sponsors Centra’s #WeAreHurling campaign, he admitted he hadn’t anticipated them progressing so fast in their first year at senior inter-county level.
“I didn’t expect them to make an impact quite as quickly as they have. I knew they were seriously talented players but I thought give them a couple of years and they’ll be leadership figures down the road for the really promising teams coming through at minor and under-17.
“They’re young but their maturity is exceptional. You could tell that talking to them about hurling. They may be teenagers but they’re men in hurling terms in their attitude and everything. I still thought it would take a couple of years.”
He also acknowledged that the previous generation of Cork players were reviving their own form in the county’s eye-catching march through All-Ireland champions Tipperary and the team they beat in last year’s Munster final, Waterford.
“What has also been fantastic for me is the way the 2013 team have got back their mojo. The likes of Séamus Harnedy coming back to serious form, Conor Lehane, Patrick Horgan and Mark Ellis, Damien Cahalane – man, the improvement in his hurling over the past year has been phenomenal – Bill Cooper, who is so underrated.”
The composition of the team – one third newcomers – is reminiscent of 1999, the year he won his first senior All-Ireland, albeit as a 21-year-old veteran of three seasons but he identifies a key difference.
“We came off the back of a couple of good minor years and two All-Irelands at under-21 so we were confident young fellas but these lads haven’t had that background but they have a natural maturity and self-belief. That makes this squad and their achievements all the more impressive.”
Ó hAilpín had a special word for his heir in the red number seven jersey, Mark Coleman whose composure and distribution have already been remarkable in someone his age.
“Out of the Freshers I worked with – I remember saying to Tom [Kenny, together with Martin Walsh his management colleagues in UCC], ‘would you look at this fella striking the ball?’ Have you seen anyone strike a ball as sweetly as him? – he laid down a marker back in October.
“For me it’s clear as day that he’s skilful as hell. What was satisfying for me was how Waterford set out to target him physically, as a 19-year old. Austin Gleeson went out to bury him but he rode the tackle and played it on to Harnedy. He’ll put on a few kilos anyway in the next few years but look, an ounce of breeding is as good as 10 ounces of feeding”.
Having watched his county defeat Tipperary in May, he initially questioned the value of the win in what had been an end-to-end exhibition of scoring. Sunday was more convincing.
“A win like that is good for the heart but it didn’t seem convincing enough for me. Sunday was different. I would have had Waterford down as one of the front runners and doing it once to Tipp was one thing but could they do it again? Not alone did they do it but they did it more emphatically than I thought. In reality though, I thought they were 10 points a better team.
“I looked at the clock at around 53 minutes and thought ‘this game is over’. There was no energy from Waterford compared to the last couple of years. All day their backs were working overtime trying to clear the ball while Cork were fantastic as a unit and coming out too easily if anything. Waterford didn’t seem up for the fight at all.”
Like back in the 1999 Munster final, Cork now face a Clare team that won the All-Ireland four years previously. On this occasion however they’re favourites. Ó hAilpín is cautious about that.
“One, there’s a game in every team and there’s a game in Clare and if that’s the Munster final, Cork are definitely in a contest. Two, my old colleague Donal Óg [Cusack] is involved with Clare and if anyone knows the Cork psyche it’s him and that will be his value to them.
“Even if Cork don’t win another game I think they’re building a team to compete at that level. It’s been a few tough years and it was becoming an annual thing to be going home after losing by double digits. I’m holding my horses at the moment but they’re on the right track.”
Although he’s enjoying the involvement with UCC, Ó hAilpín doesn’t envisage stepping up a level.
“I don’t think coaching is a career for me. All it does is keep me interested in the game, meeting people and its gets me out of the house. I don’t have any ambitions to coach an inter-county team down the road. I’m happy doing what I am.”