Early on in Thurles yesterday, when Tipperary were four points ahead, I glanced at the second TV and spotted that Clare were seven points up in Ennis. ‘Hi,’ I said to Donal Óg Cusack and Liam Sheedy, ‘we could be getting fairly excited here yet.’ Sheedy looked at me. ‘Wha?’ I told him to look at the other TV. The matches weren’t long on but you could see Sheedy doing the maths in his head. When Noel McGrath stood over his penalty shortly afterwards, which would have put Tipp seven points ahead, the outlandish and impossible somehow suddenly seemed possible.
It wasn’t. Noel’s penalty crashing off the post gave Cork the reprieve they needed to drive on and make sure they weren’t going to blow the golden opportunity they’d been given after beating Waterford. Alan Connolly’s goal shortly afterwards proved as much.
Connolly is in some form. There are very few forwards who'd have been thinking goal from his starting position but that is the kind of confidence and belief he has. The finish was first class.
As soon as the ball hit the net, that booming war cry of ‘Rebels, Rebels’ started reverberating around the ground. The wind was immediately taken out of Tipp’s sails, especially when they didn’t just need to win, but to win well. Whatever chance Tipp had, they needed to get out in front by six or seven points early on to even convince themselves that the impossible may be possible.
The second half was academic really but this was a huge boost for Cork, not only for the manner in which they won the game, but in how the team now suddenly looks far more imposing than it did after the Clare game.
Losing four championship games is never going to be easy to take but it’s all the harder again for Tipp considering how desperate they were to just win even one match. Noel McGrath tried his best but I felt there was a real lack of leadership around the field.
Colm Bonnar has a tough job ahead of him now. He’ll be hoping that guys like Bryan O’Mara and Eoghan Connolly enjoy themselves on their travels this summer because Colm will need every hand on board for next year’s league.
After being in the horrors after the Clare game, Cork are now a dangerous animal again. They had no momentum after those first two games but they’ve found it somewhere. And they will grow even more now that they’ve turned it around in such difficult circumstances.
On my way down to Thurles yesterday, I passed the Waterford team bus in Oola. You wouldn’t have known it was them because there was no ‘Waterford senior hurling team’ sign up but my curiosity got the better of me and I strained my neck and spotted Liam Cahill in the front seat.
I thought that was a sign of intent but there was clearly none of that in Cusack Park. Where did it go wrong for so many of their top players? Injuries obviously played a part early on and I just hope Tadgh de Búrca is ok. After the hell he went through from doing his cruciate knee ligament twice, the thought of another serious knee injury now could be career threatening for Tadgh. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
It was nearly a metaphor for Waterford’s day because this was a complete disaster. Their fate was already out of their own hands anyway but limping out of the championship in such a sorry fashion has made a bad situation far worse.
It will certainly feel that way for Liam Cahill. He won’t make any rash decisions in the heat of the moment but there are no guarantees that Liam will hang around after this debacle, and particularly when Waterford’s status as All-Ireland contenders was reduced to rubble in what seems like the blink of an eye.
From the stories I heard, Waterford trained like animals over the winter but how long can you keep flogging guys either? It’s all fine and well to win the league but you can’t put everything into the league anymore with the championship starting so soon afterwards. Cahill himself will be agonising over what went wrong but they clearly got the timing wrong.
Considering where Waterford have been – to an All-Ireland final in 2020 – they needed to win something. But did they need to win the league? It was a Munster title Waterford should have been going all out for.
From his experience as a manager, especially in 2019, Micheál Donoghue spoke on thelast weekend about how much the round robin hinges on momentum. Waterford had it early on after beating Tipp but, once you lose it, the damage can be irreparable.
It’s hard to believe Waterford have exited the championship in such a sorry state but I felt the warning signs were there during the second half against Limerick when the two late goals disguised the real story of that match.
It will be a job for Cahill to get it back on track now. It can be dangerous to publicly call out the players, like he did after the Cork game. You would wonder did that have an effect?
I made that mistake once in Dublin when Kilkenny hammered us in the 2012 championship in Portlaoise and I said afterwards on TV that if we rounded up 20 lads at the Red Cow roundabout that morning that we’d have done better. It was the biggest regret during my time as Dublin manager because players don’t respond well to that kind of a public lashing.
It’s painful when it all falls apart so suddenly but, on the other hand, you have to hand it to Clare after another epic display. It was even more impressive again given the raft of changes Clare made to the starting 15 from the Limerick game, and particularly given the number of debuts Brian Lohan handed out throughout yesterday’s match.
If someone had told you at the outset of the championship that Clare would top the round robin, you wouldn’t have believed it. How could you? The progress made is incredible, especially when you look at how some of the young lads have stepped up.
Clare drive on now but it’s hard to believe that Waterford, Tipp, Dublin, Westmeath and Laois won’t hurl again until next January. It’s madness really and I certainly don’t agree with it.
What must Joe Fortune and Westmeath be thinking now? I know they finished behind Dublin but they drew with Wexford and hammered Laois. Yet how do they build on that momentum? I’m not saying they deserve to be in a preliminary quarter-final. You have to draw the line somewhere but, if we’re looking to develop hurling and make that top nine even stronger, we’re certainly going the wrong way about it.
It’s always about the players but this weekend was also so much about the managers. Mattie Kenny has done a great job with Dublin but you’d wonder where he can take them next? Darragh Egan was under savage pressure after drawing with Westmeath but he deserves massive credit for the way in which Wexford went into the lion’s den and came away with a first championship win against Kilkenny in Nowlan Park.
And what about Kieran Kingston? I hope Kieran had a well deserved pint last night because he more than earned it. And if he did, I’m sure Kieran was looking at that pint and thinking: ‘Sport, you’re a funny beast’.