If Cork let it become a battle, Cats will come daubed in war paint

Dónal Óg Cusack had already begun changing the game with short puckouts in 2003 and 2004 but Damien Fitzhenry’s puckout masterclass against Kilkenny in the 2004 Leinster semi-final was still a keynote moment in hurling’s expanding tactical revolution.

If Cork let it become a battle, Cats will come daubed in war paint

Dónal Óg Cusack had already begun changing the game with short puckouts in 2003 and 2004 but Damien Fitzhenry’s puckout masterclass against Kilkenny in the 2004 Leinster semi-final was still a keynote moment in hurling’s expanding tactical revolution.

Fitzhenry was hitting moving targets into space, picking out runners in cleverly manufactured pockets, and into long and mid-range zones. It all seems so innocent now but it was radical back then. Moreover, it was one of the main reasons that Wexford stopped Kilkenny from winning seven successive Leinster titles for the first time in their history.

Kilkenny went on to achieve that feat between 2005-11 but when Wexford finally beat Kilkenny in Croke Park two weeks ago, their puckouts were once again a decisive factor.

And the most crazy aspect of all was that Wexford’s strategy this time around was almost stone-age compared to what Fitzhenry did 15 years earlier.

Nobody puts more thought into tactics and game plans than Davy Fitzgerald but his strategy against Kilkenny was mostly route-one down the centre.

Normally that would be like firing buns to bears but Kilkenny are no longer the big, bad grizzlies of the hurling world.

Whatever about losing the game, it must surely be galling Brian Cody that Wexford took them down in such a manner. He doesn’t have JJ Delaney, Tommy Walsh, and Brian Hogan around anymore, and their bear paws, to eat up those buns, but Cody still won’t have been happy that Wexford could more or less take off their gloves before the scrap, slap them off Kilkenny’s faces, put them back on, and then chin Kilkenny in the way that they did.

It was almost an insult to how Cody’s teams like to physically dominate theopposition but I’d say Fitzy couldn’t believe either that he could get his match-ups so right, especially the one with Rory O’Connor on Enda Morrissey.

As far as I could see, the only match-up Cody got right was Adrian Mullen on Shaun Murphy.

Wexford were far more economical on the day, with just three wides. Kilkenny were far more profligate and too many of their forwards were off-colour and off-key. Bringing on Richie Hogan with effectively 30 seconds to go — and Wexford already trying to run down the clock — was another indicator of a bad day at the office for management but the word on the ground is that Hogan will start tomorrow.

His back keeps flaring up which doesn’t allow him to train as much as he’d like, or as much as he needs to at this level. That’s not an ideal scenario either going into an All-Ireland quarter-final but Kilkenny can’t be relying on TJ Reid and young Mullen the whole time and Kilkenny are desperate for some kind of a spark of genius up front.

Cork are also looking for a different kind of spark. They showed against Limerick that they can burn anyone alive when they’re tuned in but they’re still like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

With no guarantees of what might happen in Thurles between Tipperary and Limerick, Cork had to be on their guard coming to Cusack Park in mid-June and they still couldn’t get into the right frame of mind. Clare were coming off the back of beatings by 13 and 18 points and they were still able to topple Cork.

When Cork are on their game they can be scintillating but can you really trust a team that oscillates so wildly? Against Kilkenny? I’m not sure.

You’d imagine that Croke Park will still suit Cork tomorrow but the last thing they’ll want is for this to turn into a war. Kilkenny were not their usual selves in the Leinster final, especially in the way they panicked late on, but they still fought on their backs. And they took the game to the wire.

Kilkenny will bring those battling qualities again to Croke Park tomorrow but they’ll come with even more war paint daubed across their cheeks after the hurt from two weeks ago. After so many underperformances that day, what will Cody have been saying to his troops to get them riled up for this battle?

Kilkenny will look to walk down on top of Cork fellas, to physically try and dominate them.

Paudie Foley was excellent on Walter Walsh but if Walter was fit you’d imagine he’d be a serious puckout target for Kilkenny tomorrow. With dummy teams now, it’s hard to know. Would Cork put Chris Joyce on Walter and just tell him to break the ball, or would John Meyler go with Tim O’Mahoney in a similar role?

If Walter isn’t there, andRichie is on that wing instead, you’d imagine Mark Coleman would be tailormade to handle him, in terms of size and stature.

Meyler won’t have learned much from the Westmeath game but I’m sure he’ll want athleticism and pace in as many areas as he can manage. You certainly wouldn’t have picked Luke Meade in this type of a game against Kilkenny a few years back but forcing overlaps with runners is what Cork will need to do to get Kilkenny on the backfoot.

There are so many imponderables around this fixture that it’s a hard game to call. Kilkenny will probably need three goals to win but, while that could happen, Kilkenny will still need to make it happen. They won’t have to deal with a sweeper but they still couldn’t raise that precious green flag against Wexford two weeks ago.

On the other hand, Cork aren’t exactly guaranteed to blitz anyone with goals either.

I know Westmeath set up with a couple of sweepers, and that Cork will score points all afternoon if you let them, but could that 1-40 not have been 6-32?

It’s hard to be critical of a team when they hit an incredible 41 scores in 70 minutes but, to me, it still reflected the lack of ambition and ruthless killer edge that has been holding back this Cork team from winning an All-Ireland.

That also applies at the back as well as up front. It seems a little strange that a team which wins by 23 points still concedes 20 points.

If Kilkenny were playing with the confidence of old, they’d be licking their lips facing a team like Cork; multi-talented but flaky and inconsistent.

But while you can still always trust Kilkenny to turn up and go to war every day, you can’t trust them to beat any of the top teams anymore.

So I fancy Cork.

It’s extremely strange that Cork-Kilkenny would be a curtain raiser to a game involving Laois but they have been the hurling story of the year so far.

If there is a parade there tomorrow, it will be some sight to see Laois hurlers march behind the Artane Band in a fairly full Croke Park. Who could have pictured that scene seven days ago, never mind seven months ago?

Dublin will be sick with their 17 wides but Laois put them under such pressure in possession that Dublin didn’t have the time that they expected to have. That may have reflected a mental slackness in Dublin but the way that Laois took the initiative from the start set that tone from the first ball that this was going to be different from what Dublin, and everyone else, expected.

The big question now, and the one that every hurling person is asking — and fearing — is can Laois do it again? Before we made the breakthrough in Clare in the early 1990s, the biggest struggle we had was trying to back up big performances.

We experienced that first hand against Tipperary in the 1993 Munster final when they smelled blood against an inexperienced side and they just gutted us.

They didn’t let up for a second but I never held that against that Tipperary team. To be honest, I respected them more for drilling us than I would have if they took their foot off the gas. T

o me, it would have been a bigger insult to us if they had. It was never viewed that way in Clare —especially by Ger Loughnane — but I felt that Tipp showed us their full respect by taking us apart. Nicky English’sfamous smile was used by Loughnane as rocket fuel for retribution but the manner of that defeat was the making of us too.

The manner of the Munster final defeat to Limerick was a setback, especially after being so impressive in their opening four games. Tipperary looked very leggy and flat that afternoon and I’d say Liam Sheedy will have them really pumped up for this match.

I’m sure he and the players were getting ready for Dublin but they won’t be taking their foot off the gas now that it’s Laois. If anything, they’ll see this as a chance to drop the pedal to the floor and roar into an All-Ireland semi-final at top speed.

Tipp couldn’t be in a better position now.

No disrespect to Laois, and particularly Wexford, but if Sheedy and the players were told at the outset of the summer that they’d have to beat those two teams to reach the final, they’d have taken your hand off.

Laois are going back into Croke Park, where they won the Joe McDonagh Cup final, but that was against Westmeath, and not Tipperary. I’ve been more than impressed with Paddy Purcell, Aaron and Willie Dunphy, and Mark Kavanagh, but you’d just fear for some of their defenders. Especially against a Tipp attack with their kind of fire power.

And particularly against a Tipp team that can smell the kill before the hunt even begins.

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