By Peter O’ Dwyer
For the second year in succession Cork and Limerick pit their wits against each other in the provincial final with significant spoils on offer.
Whereas a year ago it was Limerick that ended a 17-year wait for a Munster title, it’s beaten All-Ireland finalists Cork that will start this game looking to end a provincial drought having last won one in 2006.
In what will be the final dance in the old bowl before renovation, we’re likely to see less of a waltz and more of a frantic tango as both sides tear into each other from the start looking to get the upper-hand in what is destined to be a fine spectacle decided by equally fine margins.
Limerick are again cast in the increasingly familiar role of underdog-champions which, while a slight on their credentials, serves the purpose of getting the Shannonsiders’ backs up quite nicely.
Lest that be mistaken for their finest attribute however (an error made by many in the aftermath of their win over Tipp), be reminded of the acrobatics of a sublime goalkeeper, the expert marshalling of the All-Star full-back, the man-of-the-match performance of the oft-derided midfielder and the virtuoso 2-9 performance of the wing forward; all ably assisted by a more than alright supporting cast on the day.
So no, Limerick are not a team of plucky underdogs but a tremendously balanced team of skilful, hungry hurlers. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Fortunately, their opponents are of a similar ilk.
Having forgotten to let the handbrake off in their opening championship gambit, the Rebels didn’t need to be asked twice in the replay with Waterford before turning their attentions to retribution against the All-Ireland champions, which was delivered with minimal fuss too.
Jimmy Barry-Murphy has recruited well in the twelve months since that glorious day in Páirc na nGael when Limerick rejoiced. The additions of Aidan Walsh, Damien Cahalane, Bill Cooper, Mark Ellis and Alan Cadogan has stiffened the spine of the Rebels’ side and given them a rapier of a corner-forward already making a name for himself in big games.
Provincial dust-ups, in the southern province at least, are rarely one-sided affairs and Sunday’s isn’t likely to be any different. Where the winning of the game will rest is anyone’s guess but a few factors will be crucial.
Chief among these is the somewhat intangible value of the counties’ respective build-ups. An uninterrupted, injury-free month of working on the training field, resting and analysing the opposition as against a preparation moulded in the furnace of championship action.
Normally, championship game-time is the easy winner in that contest despite all the virtues of the clear run-in Limerick have enjoyed, but when some of your key players have been involved in the championship heat of two furnaces and been badly burnt only a week ago, the picture isn't as clear.
Whether Cahalane and Walsh are buoyed or deflated; drained or reinvigorated; men possessed or men cowed by last week is imponderable for anyone other than themselves, and perhaps the Cork set-up – but the evidence will soon become apparent on Sunday, and should the negatives outweigh the positives Cork will be in trouble.
For Walsh, it’s all about emulating the imperious fielding display he exhibited against Cork and complementing the considerable efforts of his midfield partner Daniel Kearney as they try to get the better of Paul Browne and the largely undisputed king of Thurles against the Premier County, James ‘Jimbob’ Ryan in another key contest. The winners of that battle will have set the platform for victory for their teammates.
The third area to focus on has to be the free-taking performances of Patrick Horgan and Shane Dowling. If one has an off day from dead balls, rest assured the other won’t.
From open play, Dowling looks likely to switch into the corner-forward position vacated by Seánie Tobin as David Breen comes into the side in the only change to either side. Dowling in combination with Kevin Downes and Graeme Mulcahy is a daunting prospect for the Cork defence and one they’re going to have to deal with to keep their side in the contest.
Dowling, though, is a man you feel benefits from being involved in the play rather than living off the relative scraps that often constitute a corner-forward's diet, and likewise Downes is at his most dangerous hurtling his considerable frame in the direction of defenders from deep and using his supreme ball-striking to find the back of the net.
Both can be dangerous in the inside-forward line, but given their strengths may be best utilised from slightly deeper; their contribution early on will have to be monitored closely by TJ Ryan and his selectors.
Cork, meanwhile, have opted to field an unchanged line-up from the team that swept the All-Ireland champions aside with Damien Cahalane having recovered from a freak foot injury suffered in the depths of Páirc Uí Chaoimh last Sunday when he stepped on a medical vial in the shower and cut his heel open.
You can be sure the scar of that particular mishap will be a lot quicker to heal than the collective scars a second Munster final loss to Limerick in as many years would inflict though. As the final tango approaches then, it’s hard to think of a more apt lyric than Mumford and Sons’ “Dust Bowl Dance” to sum it all up:
“There was no one in the town and no one in the field, this dusty barren land had given all it could yield.”
Tomorrow evening the current incarnation of Cork’s most revered bowl will have yielded a very special prize indeed.