WHEN CORK CRASHED out of the All-Ireland football championship last year, Brian Hurley and Mark Collins were on the bench in Portlaoise as the final whistle sounded.
Hurley had been withdrawn during the second half, Collins joining him on the sideline after he was shown a red card with ten minutes left. Tyrone had swatted Cork aside by 16 points, another chastening experience hot on the heels of a Munster final beat down from Kerry.
The end of the 2018 road was reached on the first weekend of July. Another season written off.
Twelve months on, contrast and compare the mood. Cork will run out in Croke Park against Dublin on Saturday night, securing membership of the Super 8s last weekend. The draw may have been favourable to them in terms of assignments presented and opposition provided. The upcoming challenges will be considerable, most saliently in the ominous task of taking on the standard-bearers and pace-setters in the country in Round 1.
But for Cork there has been an upturn in their fortunes.
And at the heart of that are Collins and Hurley, the Castlehaven attacking duo dovetailing together effectively to spearhead their scoring drive.
“It’s five or six years since Cork were in a quarter-final, that’s not good enough for a county the size of Cork,” reflects Collins.
“It was probably one of our aims at the start of the year to make it to the Super 8s and we’ve three massive games now to look forward to and hopefully it will bring us on more as a group.”
29-year-old Collins was an eyewitness when Cork were pushing constantly for the top. He first linked up in 2010, on the periphery of the panel when they lifted Sam Maguire, a year after being parachuted in as a teenager at centre-forward for an All-Ireland U21 win over Down. His debut came in 2011 against the same county but he didn’t make a first championship start until 2013 when Cork faced Galway in a qualifier.
Since then Collins has been a constant fixture, the 2014 tie against Sligo the beginning of an unbroken run of 20 summer outings for Cork during some highs and plenty lows. In a squad that has undergone seemingly perpetual turnover, only Paul Kerrigan of the current lot has been around longer.
Hurley’s entry to senior life was more explosive. Six years ago saw his first campaign and after lining out from the off in that 2013 Munster opener against Limerick, he was in the starting fifteen for every Cork championship game until the 2015 hiding at the hands of Kildare.
Then his well-documented injury woes descended, his hamstring ripping first in June 2016 before striking him down again in March 2017. When Hurley came on as a sub against Tipperary last June it ended a two-year wait for him to sample championship fare.
The pair have been swept up in the waves of disappointment engulfing Cork football with the added dimension for Hurley being the battle to preserve his career as it hung precariously in the balance. He fought back and after a good chunk of seasons have rattled by, 2019 has seen him hit on a good, consistent run of form in tandem with his West Cork club mate.
The year began miserably for Cork as they slipped through the Division 2 league trapdoor, they came up short again in the Munster final against Kerry while their victories over the last six weeks have been against lower tier opponents in Limerick and Laois. But the bald statistics of results conceal an improvement that can be discerned and just how effective their forward pair have been.
Consider this. Hurley’s senior championship record scoring stood at 2-26 before this year and given his treatment table history, 2-23 of that was posted between the 2013 and 2014 seasons. This summer he’s hit 5-4 and if you count the final game of the league against Armagh, he’s knocked home seven goals in his last four competitive ties.
Prior to 2019 Collins, over the course of 25 games, had struck 3-29 for Cork. He’s amassed 1-24 in three championship ties already this summer, raising eight white flags in each game. It’s a striking spike in his scoring totals.
“I think a blind man can see we work well, we know each other’s runs,” says Hurley.
“It’s good to play with him and he’s a very intelligent player — he will always try to find you if it’s on. In saying that, it’s not just about me and Marky because there’s a lot of work going on out the field.”
Collins has largely been employed in a deeper-lying role for Cork, more playmaker than poacher. This spring he was even further back the pitch, largely sweeping in defence in one game against Kildare. Scoring bursts like those in 2016 of 2-1 against Tipperary and 0-5 against Limerick were sporadic.
But Cork, who saw flagship attackers Colm O’Neill and Donncha O’Connor retire at the end of last season, have been in desperate need of reliable scoring sources.
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Collins was shifted in to the full-forward line and handed the free-taking duties for the June Bank Holiday weekend clash with Limerick. Point kicking has always been a strong asset of his game at club level, he’s now more prolific on the county stage.
“It’s something a bit different, it came out of the blue,” he says.
“Ronan (McCarthy) just threw me in there for a small bit last year and then I’m there more this year. You’re just delighted wherever you play but thankfully it’s working okay so far.
And with Hurley fit and sharp alongside him, it has increased Cork’s scoring threat. During the league Cork averaged 9.5 points per game and scored eight goals, a figure swelled by the last-day blast of three against Armagh. They have 10-68 to their credit in championship with 6-28 coming from that inside duo.
Cork’s hard running game saw them open up Kerry while a strong middle third platform against Laois paved the way for quick pinpoint deliveries to their full-forward line. The scoring rush has been facilitated by Ruairi Deane’s role as the fulcrum of the side, Ian Maguire’s command at midfield and the emergence of athletic wing-backs Liam O’Donovan and Mattie Taylor.
The second-half goals against Laois illustrated the clarity and understanding that Collins and Hurley have of each other’s play. Hurley’s deft finish with his left for the first came from a weighted popped pass from Collins before they swapped roles for the third goal.
“We’ve been playing together since we were 15 or 16,” outlines Collins.
“It’s a great connection with him, I lived with him for a couple of years as well so I get on super with him. I know what he’s been through so I’m absolutely delighted he’s got to a stage like this and is doing so well.
“It just shows you what Cork have missed. You can’t buy forwards like that, he just lives for goals and at this level if you can get goals you’ve a great chance. Absolutely delighted to have him back.”
With just eight teams left standing, the scale of the challenges now rise starkly. Cork face last year’s All-Ireland finalists in quick succession, Dublin and Tyrone will offer gruelling examinations to gauge where the Munster outfit stand.
And those defences will be more alert to stopping Cork’s marksmen.
“Two games in Croke Park, it’s something to really look forward to and can’t wait for it,” states Collins.
“Where else would you rather be than having a crack off the best team in the country?”
Hurley is similarly enthused.
“We’ll be going for them, of course you will. They’re a great team, great players, but at this time of the year you have to go for them and I’m looking forward to it. There are a lot of fellas who haven’t been in Croker since ’16 and I’m looking forward to it, and I’m sure a lot of the fellas will.”
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