Munster SHC semi-final: Cork v Waterford, 4pm ... This isn’t a hurling championship. This is an extended episode of Game of Thrones.
There is blood. There is gore. There are twists and turns. There is regicide aplenty: the King in the South lost his head last month, the King in the East lost his last week. The old Young King in the Midwest, having trusted his command to two new generals, has rediscovered his lust for combat.
In keeping with the TV series there are even boobs (the standard of full-back play, Kilkenny’s gameplan – or lack thereof – against Wexford) and at least one dragon (fill in the punchline to this yourself). Right now the incumbent sits uneasily on the Iron Throne and the pretenders are massing at the gates.
Tomorrow brings the prospect of another intriguing battle to follow and complement the gripping set-piece encounters already witnessed in Semple Stadium and Wexford Park. But this is no clash of warring philosophies and it shouldn’t be presented as that.
Cork have a bunch of fast, light and mainly young forwards: naturally, they’re going to try and play as quick and expansive a game as possible. Waterford have been employing a seventh defender as a safety blanket for most of the past three seasons: they’ll likely do so again here. A manager cuts his cloth according to the volume and quality of the material at hand.
Whatever prospect existed of Waterford deploying a conventional six-man defence surely disappeared after the opening nine minutes of Cork-Tipperary. Two members of the All Ireland champions’ full-back line had been booked and their defence destabilised. It would not get better for them.
The template for the afternoon was operational. This would be a game played on Cork’s terms. Actually, it would also be a game played largely on Tipperary’s terms, so let’s rejig that sentence. This would be a game played on both sets of forwards’ terms.
Tomorrow will be different. If Waterford are to progress it must be different. In that case, it has to be a game played on their defence’s terms. When Mark Coleman zaps a diagonal ball to the far flank Philip Mahony has to be compressing the space between the full-back and half-back lines, lying back on top of Alan Cadogan, with Tadhg De Búrca on hand to mop up the shards. Having spoken admiringly of the Cork attack before it was either popular or profitable to do so, Derek McGrath will not allow his rearguard to suffer the same fate as Tipperary’s.
How much of real pith can be read into the events of the quarter-final? Think of it this way. Back in 2008 there was another Munster quarter-final, this one at the Gaelic Grounds, that ended Clare 2-26 Waterford 0-23 (J Mullane 0-8). Now your correspondent’s grá for the crewcut one has been lavishly ventilated here numerous times over the years, but nobody — nobody — should score eight points when his team lose by nine.
Cork-Tipp merits a long spoon for similar reasons. Thirty points in the first half, shared equally. Only four of them frees. All 12 forwards scoring from play by the interval.
C’est magnifique mais c’est ne pas le championship.
While Wexford Park this night week clearly had nothing to touch Thurles for quality and effervescence, the Leinster semi-final was equally gripping if not more so. A classic championship encounter ought to be a struggle for both teams. Still, the quarter-final will have confirmed McGrath’s darkest fears. Give these Cork forwards two inches, as Tipperary did, and they’ll take half a mile.
Their skill, pace and ambition got Kieran Kingston’s men through the first 60 minutes. The rediscovery of their innate Corkness got them through the rest.
Was the ensuing acclamation, including a trite Sonia O’Sullivan article about the glories of the Cork psyche, slightly over the top? To be fair, the reaction from most Leeside folk to the victory against Tipperary was as much an outpouring of relief and delighted surprise as it was of joy. Very few people seemed to be getting ahead of themselves, and wisely so. Finding love at 2am just as the last song finishes and the lights go up in the nightclub doesn’t make you George Clooney.
Despite driving five wides Conor Lehane gave a man of the match display. You’d worry for Cork’s opponents the next time he has ten attempts from play and doesn’t spill half of them. But it won’t be tomorrow because Waterford won’t let him fire ten bullets. And if they do they’ll lose and they’ll deserve to.
Despite landing four from four, Patrick Horgan was the quietest of the Cork forwards. Conversely, he could be the man to make the difference in a tight match shortly.
Whether it would have been an entirely different game had Tipperary scored two goals from those early attacks or Seamus Callanan not squandered a one-on-one shortly before half-time falls well and truly into the ‘If My Aunt Had Balls’ category. In two of the three instances, Anthony Nash did where he’s there to do. But the memory of the manner in which Cork were split open on all three occasions will have encouraged Austin Gleeson.
You were informed here last year that the fashion for sweepers was nothing more than a passing fad, that hurling was not in fact engaged in grim existential struggle for its soul and that the people making a song and dance to that effect should take a chill pill.
Lo and behold, the wheel has duly turned. Three goals in Cork-Tipp, four goals in Clare-Limerick, four goals in Wexford-Kilkenny. The sky has not fallen in and it’s not about to. But tomorrow could be a game of few goals, even a game of no goals. Waterford won’t object. They won’t win a shootout.
In last year’s drawn All-Ireland semi-final they hurled better than they’d ever hurled under McGrath and better than the county had hurled since the summer of 2007. It wasn’t a freak, but it may have been an outlier. There’s no guarantee they’ll hurl as well again under McGrath. There’s certainly no guarantee they’ll hurl better. It could be that they won’t revisit such heights for the rest of the decade and will spend the next three years in a holding pattern.
If so, would that be the end of the world? The notion that Waterford “really need to win something” this year has been overdone. They really don’t. All they need to do this summer, and for the next few summers, is to remain contenders. Time is with this group of players.
On the plus side, the return of Darragh Fives for the first time in what seems like an age is a boon. He’s tough, smart and adaptable. On the minus side Tom Devine, who may not have been a super sub in the David Fairclough mould (kids, ask your dad) but in his trundling manner was definitely an impact player, will be missed sooner or later.
To the obvious advantages of winning tomorrow can be added a related and equally obvious benefit: Avoiding the qualifiers; avoiding a highly irritated feline, even if it doesn’t scratch with the venom of old, in the first round of the qualifiers; avoiding, possibly, Tipperary in the second round; avoiding, more than possibly, Galway in an All-Ireland semi-final.
When you play the game of thrones you win or you die. Waterford to win tomorrow, Cork for a speedy resurrection. The war will continue for another three months. Anyone’s crown come September.
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