PM O’Sullivan: Can the stubborn Nore erode swelling Cork confidence?

Proximity alone does not guarantee intimacy. Long proximity is required. As Cork and Kilkenny bear out.
PM O’Sullivan: Can the stubborn Nore erode swelling Cork confidence?

Patrick Horgan of Cork in action against Huw Lawlor of Kilkenny during the 2019 All-Ireland quarter-final. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Most serious hurling games, especially when a really close contest is anticipated, fold weather within climate.

The wind blows and the wind lowers but is always the wind. There are immediate coordinates, the present season’s formlines, and there are memories of battles past, psychological dynamics that grandfathers and great grandfathers alike experienced. This statement is honest exaggeration.

Put another way, nearly all serious hurling counties claim a beef with each other. 2017's senior final proved unusual precisely for how little spin could be put on the relationship between Galway and Waterford. No grounding had ever taken hold.

Those counties’ recent qualifier meeting, when Waterford progressed, got framed in terms of revenge for 2017. Such comment was mainstream punditry’s lack of understanding, someone flexing an umbrella indoors at the sound of rain. Proximity alone does not guarantee intimacy. Long proximity is required.

As Cork and Kilkenny bear out. Next Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final counts as just one more charm in braceleted decades. There is ever so much previous, come a century and more.

To a man, the bookmakers reckon Sunday as absolute evens. This verdict, highly unusual, registers significant change in a dynamic.

For the last dozen or so years, Cork invariably went to trap as underdog. Kilkenny’s victory in 2006’s senior final, dashing Rebel three-in-a-row ambitions, barked loud and barked long. This weekend, the presence in Cork’s backroom of Dónal O’Grady and Diarmuid O’Sullivan, mid-2000s men, means spiced beef.

A century and more … Cork crushed Kilkenny by 25 points in 1903’s home final, 8-9 to 0-8. Yet the latter won 1904’s senior final, their first title, by minimum margin, 1-9 to 1-8. A mere year closed that massive gap by force of concentration.

Here is two hurling counties’ version of a creation myth, the descent of a flood. Give Cork their head and they become lethal, running up a huge score for fun. Cork are a spate team, then and now, a surge team. They operate off a lilt, same as the accent. They feed off the velocity of confidence.

Kilkenny are different, then and now. Note those two scorelines from 1903 and 1904. Take that alteration as emblematic. Second time of asking, the challengers triumphed by achieving no more than 1-1 in excess of the previous outing’s tally. The feat lay in collapsing the champions’ tally by 8-1, an outcome dependent on outstaring mere flair.

Give Kilkenny their head and they take thought. Punch them in the head and they take thought. Wrists rather than legs would feature in any heraldic device raised for that place’s hurling.

The poet Edmund Spenser, a colonialist familiar with County Cork, dubbed one river “the stubborn Nore”. This water rises in Tipperary, flows through Laois but belongs to Kilkenny. That Spenser associated the Nore with such doggedness pleases me, in that stubbornness represents a form of climate, a triumph of character over mere personality.

Kilkenny’s hurlers nod. They dissemble behind a drawl, same as the accent, secretive winners. They stay quiet, mainly. They feed off the steady push of belief.

We could chat tactics and potential line-ups. We could ponder what midfield Kilkenny can muster so as to stymy the surging runs of Tim O’Mahony and Darragh Fitzgibbon. We could wonder about Thomastown’s John Donnelly — quicksilver hands, such unselfishness — at full-forward on Glen Rovers’ Robert Downey.

Tullaroan’s Pádraig Walsh, for all his talent, stands as a makeshift centre-back. Much the same could be noted of Blarney’s Mark Coleman. Whoever can make the most hay at centre-forward will likely enjoy the winter. But do not forget that saving hay is often a given’s day weather, the lift of chance.

Intense sports rivalry, in whatever code, means a constant attempt by one competitor to establish itself as climate, fixed, majestic, and unsurpassable. For many 20th-century decades, Tipperary were Kilkenny’s climate. Then there came, causing
consternation throughout the Ridings, a nigh biblical 21st-century reversal.

Top-flight sport, in the end, never sees anything or anyone endure as climate. Dublin’s footballers are in the process of turning back into weather. Kerry’s footballers hanker to vault out of Centigrade and back into Fahrenheit. So all goes, as the wind blows.

Dónal Collins hurled for Blackrock and Cork before transferring to James Stephens. He was quoted in these pages: “I was in Kilkenny recently myself and got the impression that they wanted to get Cork this weekend, that they feel they have the upper hand on Cork.”

I live in the city and would caveat. Many natives’ gut feeling is that these Rebels are likely lads, that surge might outdo stubbornness on this
occasion.

One Cork goal already achieved? Levering themselves back into the realm of weather. They go to trap in a gleam, back on the up, back in the realm of the unpredictable.

I can no more surely predict this result than predict whether the meadows of Ireland will teem with field mushrooms over the next few weeks. And I am
obsessed. Wild mushrooms are all the theology I have ever needed.

I hope for thundery rain and blanketed meadows and sizzling frying pans and a Kilkenny win.

But confidence about either outcome? No way. Cork and Kilkenny … 

Absolute evens, once again.

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