Can two swallows make a summer? The pitch invasion yesterday in Thurles spoke volumes, supporters in red streaming onto the Semple Stadium field to celebrate 14-man Cork’s Munster SHC semi-final win over Waterford.
An experienced Déise side were overrun by a fresher Cork outfit, 0-23 to 1-15, with the latter absorbing punishment and breaking upfield to tattoo points in a reasonable imitation of counter-punchers everywhere, from the Inter Milan of Herrera to the (even older) Archie Moore.
Nostalgia was a keynote yesterday, because for a while all 33,163 of us in attendance were also in a time machine. Brexit never happened. Trump never happened. The downturn never happened.
All because Cork and Waterford were playing a Munster championship game on a scalding, sunny day in Thurles, the stadium rocking and two teams flooring it to the finishing line.
It was like 2004 all over again. Or 2003. Or 1999. Or 2007. Or 2005. Everyone was back walking those blue remembered hills we enjoyed before dystopia became the matter of daily headlines.
The hurling? That was different, but before the action, the dramatis personae. A week of concern on Leeside about Conor Lehane’s ankle came to a sharp focus at approx. 3.30pm yesterday, when he emerged from the tunnel with his teammates.
The sudden scrutiny of ten thousand pairs of eyes must have felt like sunlight streaming through a magnifying glass on the the stadium, but Lehane didn’t combust. He was running freely and duly took his station.
The other great imponderable before throw-in was the location of Austin Gleeson, who was rumoured to be a possibility in almost every corner of the field. At the throw-in, he took up position at right-corner-forward on Colm Spillane, despite the number six across the back of his jersey.
There you have incarnate one of the great differences between the flowing orthodoxy of the game a decade and more ago. Nobody was terribly shocked that Gleeson, last year’s Hurler and Young Hurler of the Year moved to what is traditionally one of the most peripheral locations on a GAA field; the only element of surprise was where he would eventually end up.
Apart from one outrageous slide-gather-and-strike for a point early on, Gleeson had little impact on the first half. Waterford worked their attacks through Pauric Mahony instead, whose movement was exemplary across the lines and into midfield had the Cork half-back line under severe pressure. Nearer the Rebel goal were different challenges, with Waterford creating huge space in front of Anthony Nash.
For all that, however, Cork were three ahead on 20 minutes, with Mark Coleman again the launchpad for their attacks and the likes of Lehane and Horgan simply more efficient than Waterford’s forwards. Lehane offered a memory to go with that of Gleeson’s trick, fetching a puck-out going backwards on the run, steadying himself and pointing from the sideline.
With the clock moving towards 35 minutes, the game swung: Seamus Harnedy went for goal from outside the square but Waterford ‘keeper Stephen O’Keeffe pulled off a save for the ages to deny him, and to underline the contrast in experience, when the ball spilled along the endline the Déise recycled possession calmly downfield to Kevin Moran, who duly equalised just ahead of the Barry Kelly’s whistle for half-time. Ten points each.
Afterwards Waterford boss Derek McGrath isolated the seven or eight minutes after half-time as crucial to the outcome, and he was right. Cork hit five snappy points in that period to establish their supremacy, 0-15 to 0-11, though Waterford struck back with the game’s only goal.
The last Cork point in that sequence, lit up by a wonderful cameo of ball-smuggling by Patrick Horgan, came with plenty of criticism from the Waterford end for a perceived foul on ‘Brick’ Walsh in the build-up; that was echoed when Maurice Shanahan careered through minutes later for that Waterford goal, with the Cork end having plenty to say about a perceived foul on Luke Meade in that build-up.
Still, Cork outscored Waterford 0-5 to 0-1 in the ten minutes after the goal, looking for room up the wings and by-passing Tadhg de Burca, who was holding the centre. That approach certainly means it isn’t 2004 any more.
Cork’s Colm Spillane was sent off for a second yellow card with nine minutes on the clock but the Rebels’ calm processing of the ball through the lines hardly faltered. A recycling of possession by Steven McDonnell, Mark Ellis and Anthony Nash in the left-hand corner underlined further the difference between yesterday and the battles of the recent past.
“No complaints,” said Derek McGrath after the game.
“I thought we were lucky to be in it half-time, Stephen O’Keeffe kept us in it in the first half with a couple of brilliant saves.
“(What’s) Disappointing from our point of view is that everything we planned to do we didn’t do. We were conventional and it didn’t suit us.
“With the breeze we wanted a situation where Cork would be coming into bodies, as opposed to the way it worked. We ended up chasing the game in terms of everyone going for the ball when we had the long puck out strategy in the first half. We didn’t play our game. “I thought Cork played a mini-version of our game at the end, with 13, 14 bodies behind the ball and the skill then to manipulate the ball. No complaints, absolutely none, I’ve been championing how good Cork have been, without trying to prove myself right about it, the better team all around.
“The disappointing thing is that we left any hint of intensity that we wanted to bring, it looks like we left it in the camp in Fota. That’s disappointing from our point of view.”
In the red and white corner Diarmuid O’Sullivan was paying tribute to his side’s character.
“We showed great resilience,” said the Cork selector. “Even when Colm (Spillane) went off Waterford got the next score but we went down the field and got the next two points. That’s great resilience . . .This is about a performance. Ok, the performance led to a result which leads onto a Munster final which ultimately put us in an All-Ireland quarter-final or a semi-final.
“It’s just a performance, that’s all it was, it was a performance, it’s a key to the next step that happens to be a Munster final. That’s a really positive thing for Cork and for Cork hurling in general.”
The Cloyne man hurriedly installed Clare as Munster final favourites - “Clare are further advanced in where they want to go. They’re a long way ahead of us in terms of their plan and their overall plan,” - a view unlikely to be supported by his clubmate in the Banner backroom team.
Waterford will have an ear out for the qualifier draw, which features a couple of tanks filled with hungry sharks that would have pleased Hugo Drax or Ernst Blofeld mightily. The challenge for them is to shake off the rust visible yesterday and to deploy Austin Gleeson to maximise his talents.
For Cork the inexperience is still visible from time to time, but so, significantly, is the consistency.
Another echo from the old days? Perhaps. Prepare yourself for new memories in the Thurles time machine on July 9.
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