Conversation with Ben O’Connor who sometimes looks like Cork.
Yes, the three-time winner All-Ireland believes Cork has more than a chance to defeat the All-Ireland champions and put a dent in their aura of invincibility, recalling another team in another code.
He draws that parallel with a smile, but in a week in which Cork appears in three All-Ireland finals – minor, under-20 and senior – his voice carries a tone of possibility.
He’s in the car on his way home from a practice session with the senior Midleton team and the screaming speech is in the air. It’s in flight form, whether it’s Cork hurling and the All-Blacks; Olympic-level sprinters in the current team; or the 2005 final when his goal put Cork on track against Galway.
His twin brother Jerry was in the Cork engine room at the time and is another figure associated with the electric racing game Cork introduced to the world of hurling.
A version of that lives on in this current culture now standing at the edge of the county’s first senior All-Ireland since that Sunday in September 2005.
There are clearly a few stylistic cues shared by the current Cork team and the bitter rebels of the early 2000s. This period saw a lot of opposition from the game’s traditionalists who felt they were almost questioning ancient art.
The style of play that Donal O’Grady popularized with Cork – it’s no coincidence that he’s back in a coaching role this year with the senior county squad – hails from Newtownshandrum, where the small rural club won senior All-Ireland success. The O’Connor family was at the heart of this as well, until Father Bernie and the O’Connors hurley-making business became involved.
The approach would be a signifier for the new millennium and how the game would change drastically in terms of how the pieces are set up and unfolded on the board.
“Twenty years ago there was no one there,” O’Connor says of his Cork team’s style of play. “It was considered strange, that ‘it wasn’t screaming’. People would say, “It’s like playing football. But, look, you are using the tools that you have.
“I remember we were playing in U14 and U16 with the club.
“Now that was a long time ago. It was different from the norm at the time. It’s not an insult to some of the squad, but some players were limited in their howl.
“We had a small number back then, so every age man had to play. But as limited as the hurling was, every guy could run.
“We had seven or eight good able to throw, so we just had a game plan where the boys who could be poor at hurling would run with the ball and give it to the guys who were able to throw. So we developed it that way. It wasn’t an insult to any guy, it was just a matter of making the best use of talent.
“Then we went to senior and we were playing with better pitchers. But everyone had a job and everyone sang the same hymn according to their role.
“The next thing, we started winning counties. The guys were looking at this thinking, “Maybe that’s not wrong? Maybe we should look at this? “
“Then Donal O’Grady got involved with Cork and I guess he saw what worked with it.
“He worked so hard on it and got the guys on board. There were still some skeptical guys back then. He saw what he had. He had pace, good pitchers, and he had that buy-in.
Cork has a proud tradition as a standard bearer for some type of traditional hurling. So it was not an easy sale.
“You heard guys roar over the podium, ‘Ah, are you going to hit the ball long – hit the ball long. “So the guys had to defend what they believed, even give the extra pass just to prove you were going to play the way we wanted.
“Cork was considered traditional. You are watching the game now. Kilkenny, who would even be seen as more traditional than Cork, has evolved his game. They are there now to an extent.
“Like Clare when they came in the 90s, they would get up at 6 am. Then other teams started training early. So whatever wins, whatever works, people copy that.
“The semi-final on the last day, you could see it against Kilkenny, they were holding the ball. And there were guys around me talking about it. What do you want them to do? Throw the ball into the field and return it to you two seconds later?
“You have to play on your strengths. And Cork has good pitchers, guys with a lot of pace, guys with brains. The sliotar does not have a brain – so it has to be moved everywhere. I would say fair play to the boys.
It’s a high-skill, high-risk strategy that’s exciting in its own way. There were times when Kilkenny was inches away from intercepting a pass and scoring. The last goal of leveling things off in normal times came when Tim O’Mahony was turned around and Padraig Walsh had the vision of picking Adrian Mullen who was hiding inside.
Can it work then against Limerick who will put intense pressure on a Cork team determined to get the ball through the lines?
“Of course it’s possible, with Cork’s pace, if they’re brave enough to stick to the game plan, like they’ve been doing all year.”
“It’s about having confidence in your own abilities, confidence in what you do. Since Limerick beat them at the Munster Championship, they have improved with every game. ‘
Not a bad sprinter himself with the ball in hand, a steady pace and an eye for the score made him one of Cork’s benchmark forwards for 14 seasons.
His great sporting passion has led him to follow the recent Olympic Games and the dispatches from Tokyo. He draws a parallel with events on the other side of the world when asked if the Cork XV who line up this afternoon claim to be the fastest hurling team ever?
“Some of them are lightning fast. I heard on the radio after the Olympics, about track and field for Ireland, “Oh, we should be doing better. That there are countries smaller than Ireland that win medals, why doesn’t Ireland win medals? “
“The reason Ireland don’t win medals is because some of the fastest guys in the country are playing GAA. They have no interest in athletics. If track and field got these guys at six or seven, they could win medals at the Olympics.
“But it’s just not like that.
“The big game in Ireland is GAA and that’s what they want to play.
“Some of the rhythm there is scary. Limerick plays this kind of game similar to Cork. They are big and physical, while Cork would have a little more rhythm in his attack than Limerick.
“Look, that makes a thriller. If Cork is there with 10 minutes left, I would be very confident.
“The talk that Limerick was head and shoulders above everyone else last year – which they were. But they were playing winter howls. It’s howling summer this year. Another different ball game. Now I’m not saying Cork is going to win with 10 points, but I think it will be a lot closer than people think. The bookies have Limerick at 2-7 in a two-horse race – I can’t see where that came from.
“Cork has improved day by day and still has not reached its full potential.”
Now immersed in the coaching side of the game, O’Connor has seen firsthand how dramatically hurling has changed, especially over the past 10 years.
He has witnessed the arrival of defensive systems, counterattack setups and styles of play with additional sweepers and defenders.
Davy Fitzgerald and Derek McGrath pushed the boundaries tactically and it now seems to have evolved again, with Waterford scoring 3-25 against Tipperary under Liam Cahill and Cork taking running and possession play to another level. So has the old style of counties gone somehow? Or is it still important to hold on to certain elements?
“I think everything is progressing. I think we’ve gone from there. If you throw a ball to any front – high and lob ball – if the back is good, eight out of 10 times it will win the ball.
“If you play the ball down in front of your attacker who has a little bit of rhythm, eight times out of 10 he’s going to win the ball. So why would you want to throw the ball high?
“It’s just the way the game has changed. Possession is king. If you use the ball well, you can get a score of a puck-out. Play five or six passes on the field and no one can get a hold of you.
“With the way the referees referee games now, the full backs can barely attack. It’s so fast now, I would hate to be back.
It’s easy to draw a parallel to 1999 when Cork arrived with a squad brimming with bright young talent and fearlessly knocked out a Kilkenny side that was one of the favorites in Brian Cody’s first final. For the triumphs of 2004 and 2005, Ben and Jerry were at the heart of the success.
Cork had won back-to-back titles, was already planning a three in a row, so what?
“People have said over the years, ‘It would be great to see Waterford win an All-Ireland, great to see Limerick win an All-Ireland”. Now we’re starting to hear, “Wouldn’t it be great to see Cork win an All-Ireland?” Because you don’t expect to wait that long. But, listen, a lot has happened in the meantime. The minor is right. That didn’t happen last year and the year before. This has been happening for 20 years.
“If you bring in one or two of them, that adds to the young panel that is already there. Hopefully we could be there for the next 10 years anyway. I hope in God.
Rather than weighing heavily in Cork, this tradition often seemed to inspire. Supported and boastful of what happened on the field of play, nor the teams that O’Connor played on, this bulletproof belief has not left one of the most modern players. prized in Cork.
“Even come back at the start of this year. No one expected Cork to make an All-Ireland final. Not to mention three finals with minors, under 20s and seniors all in one year.
“But, look, I’m the kind of guy who if Cork was going to play against the All Blacks in rugby tomorrow morning, I would expect to beat the All Blacks in rugby. I would be confident all the time.
There are plenty of howlers in Cork. The first title is always the hardest. If we can overcome this, hopefully it will be the start of great things to come.