DONAL OG CUSACK: Time for answers on day of reckoning for these best of enemies

Huge question marks hang over both Cork and Tipperary. Sunday’s semi-final showdown will provide the answers, argues Donal Óg Cusack.

N THE CHARGE: Bill Cooper races past Limerick's James Ryan in the Munster final. Sunday is another huge test for Cooper.  Picture: Eddie O'Hare

SORRY.

If you’re looking for answers, you might as well skip to the letters page. There’s more certainty there. This build up to Cork and Tipp is about questions. Anybody who claims to ‘know’ is selling you a pup.

At this time of year, Sunday shouldn’t be marked on the GAA calendar with the usual abbreviation at all. It should just appear on calendars as a big question mark at the end of the week. Mon. Tue. Wed. Thu. Fri. Sat. ?. And on the seventh day, they answered all the questions they had been asking themselves.

Come Monday, Tipp or Cork, will know a lot more about themselves. One county will be talking about rebuilding. The other will be looking at an All-Ireland. Only a fool would tell you this morning who will be doing either of those things.

Forget about the old crack about having the hay saved and Cork bate. That held good back in the days when Cork and Tipp knew they were thoroughbreds and one beating the other just confirmed the bloodlines.

This week you meet Tipp men who ask you if Tipp can be as bad as they have looked sometimes or if they have one big game in them. You meet Cork fellas who worry that Cork aren’t as good as people say. They could lose by more.

Kilkenny must be loving it.

Hurling has reached a stage where the so called Big Three are the only teams left standing in a Championship which was supposed to be a continuation of the revolution which began last year. The only sign of the revolution still being alive is that whichever of the big three wins in September, you wouldn’t be backing them to go on and win two or three in a row. Nobody is going to sweep to this years All-Ireland like an all-conquering army. The music will stop and somebody will be standing and somebody will be sitting and the person who is sitting will be given a cup.

The old certainties are gone and the game isn’t recognisable from 10 years ago. The fad back then was for a mountainous half-back line facing down the field to another mountainous half-back line. Tactics were about how to get the ball over the opposing mountain range.

At one stage near the end of the game last week, Kilkenny (who as we all know regard tactics as a mortal sin) were playing with two forwards. One of their best players, Richie Hogan, was a midfielder who tops out at 5’7’’. They were plying short quick ball, a new style they have adopted this year. Looks like tactics, smells like tactics. Definitely not tactics.

This Sunday should bring even stranger sights. I don’t remember a big game in recent years where so many question marks hung over the heads of defenders and so many laurels hung from the necks of forwards. I don’t remember a game where we will find out in so many positions if Cork or Tipp have found somebody for the long haul or if they will be putting the ad in the window again next spring.

Tipp’s forwards have been growing on underage teams for a few years. I’m not sure if Jimmy didn’t just happen to be walking home one evening carrying a huge net behind him when it started to rain good forwards. Being Jimmy, most of them fell into the net he happened to have. Somehow Cork have a seriously good front six and if they can get them all firing at the same time, they could be unbeatable.

The forwards on both sides have the least questions to answer. We will know on Monday if Bill Cooper has arrived for good in the number 11 jersey or if he is a work in progress. We’ll know if Conor Lehane is getting the balance right between when to twist and when to fold when it comes to shooting. Pa Cronin seems to have inherited Timmy McCarthy’s knack for being the Cork forward everybody likes to ask questions about. You look at the numbers Timmy put down and the only question is why there were so many questions. Same with Pa Cronin. He brings things no other forward on that team brings. He is Cork’s only left over right grip attacker. He has a talent for drifting into the full-forward spot and contesting high balls. Like Timmy at times when there is trouble, Cronin often comes along and digs out a vital play. Remember his goal in the final last year?

At some point a couple of years ago, Pa Horgan stopped being one of those players about whom people always said that it was time to stand up and be counted. He has stood up.

That’s four top forwards all of a sudden. Then you throw in a few once-offs.

Young Cads. It either does my heart good to see him out there or it makes me feel old. When Eoin Cads came onto the Cork senior team we’d go to the ball alley together a lot. Usually he’d bring his shy younger brother along with him.

Alan was good from the start, even back then in his early teens. He loved to work and practice.

We’d play doubles games. I’d always goad Seán Óg and Eoin to take sides together. It would be them against myself and young Alan. I’d say, come on, two big athletes like ye and Jesus look at us, an old goalie and a young fella. We were never beaten.

I’d do all the boasting just to drive the lads mad but Alan had a much bigger part in the unbeaten run at the ball alley than I ever gave him credit for. I loved those times. Great days. He was mad for road. If the ball went over the wall into the trees, he was gone after it like a shot. To watch him now, with the touch he has and the madness in him to go around players is an amazing thing.

And then there’s another Sully on the block. Paudie O’Sullivan was a serious player in his mid-teens. Played in a county final before most young fellas are shaving. Then it seemed to go. Two bad injuries slowed him down but he’s a natural forward. I don’t care about natural v manufactured hurlers but some guys just have the mentality for forward play.

Sunday should be the day to end all the rubbish that gets thrown down about manufactured hurlers and natural hurlers. There are only good hurlers and bad hurlers. Every hurler is manufactured. No midwife has ever reported a baby arriving with a hurley and a first touch.

I’ve said for some time that Seamus Harnedy is the nearest in style we have produced to Henry Shefflin.

Whenever Harnedy was born, there were no wise men making their way by the stars to deliver frankincense and myrrh and Cummins sliotars to his cot. I don’t think he had anything resembling an underage career. I first started hearing of Seamus Harnedy at the time a few years ago when my friend Martin ‘Gatchy’ Walsh, who was our logistics man with Cork, started training St Ita’s. He began swearing to me that there was a young lad there who was the real deal. Now here are the opening lines from the St Ita’s GAA website:

‘St Ita’s is a small hurling club based in East Cork. We have a small membership and currently we have one team at Junior A level and one team at U8 level. At different times throughout the clubs history we have had two teams on the go in Junior A and B and we have even had football teams, sadly with the current climate we have a small panel and have just one team.’

I’m from a not very big club in east Cork myself but there was enough of the hurling snob in me to wonder if Gatchy could possibly be serious about St Ita’s having a prospect.

St Ita’s play in Pilmore between the cities of Youghal and Killeagh. They play on the windiest field in Ireland. They claim the pitch is beside the beach. I swear it is the beach. You could lose a corner-forward at low tide.

In my mother’s time, Piltown was only known as the home of Art Supple, the great showband singer. Anyway Seamus Harnedy went on to UCC where he was hothoused and blossomed and now he has become integral to Cork’s body and soul.

In last year’s All-Ireland final, when the game was in the melting pot, I noticed a Cork forward pull out of a 50-50 challenge. In the same play Harnedy went into a tackle 100%-plus. He’s the type of ball winner Cork have been crying out for. He is fearless and he has the guts to go for goal. Bring him up next time the great manufactured hurler debate starts.

And compare him to Shefflin, who had an ordinary underage career and was discovered making up the numbers playing on a Kilkenny intermediate side. Shefflin is the purest example of how greatness is a marathon, not a sprint. He is the end to all arguments about manufactured hurlers in that he is the greatest manufactured hurler of our time. He gets better and better as the years go past because he works harder and harder. I said it plenty times before, top players don’t work hard because they are top players, they are top players because they work so hard.

HARNEDY is a modern forward. He needs to be moved around rather than left in one spot. Shefflin the old dog, understands that better than anybody. In the last minute last week, when the war was raging he ghosted from the right corner-back position to the right corner- forward position with hardly anybody noticing. I’d say the grass under his feet wasn’t even trampled. The King? The ghost?

Seamus wasn’t around the panel for long enough before I ended for me to know him but I believe he can get better and better if his attitude is right.

So I look at the Cork forwards and all logic would suggest Cork will have too much for Tipp on Sunday. There is no logic between the four white lines in Croke Park, though. Are Tipp as bad as they can look? Or do they have one big game in them? And would the one big game make them?

If I were Eamon O’Shea, I would consider not playing Bonner Maher on Mark Ellis. I’d be throwing a Noel McGrath-type player in at centre-forward and seeing what mischief would follow.

I remember a time when Eoin Kelly’s style of striking began to become influential. Instead of tossing the ball a yard in front of himself to strike, Eoin developed a technique of throwing the ball behind and moving onto the back foot and hitting it from there. It made him very hard to block. We had to develop a response of getting players to stream into his body space whenever he got the ball. Even coming at him in his peripheral vision he’d be forced to recalculate.

Great forwards do things like that and defences learn and develop responses. Lar Corbett had his little habits too. Nearly all forwards do. Bonner Maher you can’t work out though. He has no default move. Whatever he does when he gets the ball is determined by some brilliant but random program in his brain. That’s the ultimate nightmare. As such, all you can do is try to keep the ball out of his hands as much as possible. For me, Bonner gets most ball into his hands and does the most damage by being let go free and move wherever he wants.

The questions Cork most have to answer on Sunday concerns their defence. Eamon O’Shea will have answered one very big question about himself if he uses his forwards smartly enough to ask those questions. I wonder too what he will do about Eoin Kelly. Is he really in his thoughts? For me in a big game, I’d have Kelly on for the last 15 minutes just like you’d always have Shefflin on for the same time. When the smoke is thick on the battlefield, they are the guys who find the pathways.

Questions. Tipp have a goalie who seems trapped under the shadow of Brendan Cummins. He needs to forget that and be himself and remember that although Brendan was one of the greatest to play the game, there were some Tipp people who always doubted him. That’s the nature of the beast and the nature of the position. Cork have a couple of players who I’m surprised haven’t been tested on their one-sidedness. Will Sunday be the day? Is Michael Cahill fit? If so, can he give another of his masterclasses of tight economical hurling? This time in the highest company? Do Tipp have a number three? How much discipline will the Cork full- back line need? There have been signs of frustration on big days before. Is Bubbles more solid than the name suggests?

This is Corcaigh v Tiobraid Árann. It’s Friday and there’s more questions than answers. That’s how it should be... Any fella who isn’t looking forward to having his character interrogated on Sunday has had one question about himself answered already.



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