When Cork finally hit a rhythm and a groove in the second quarter yesterday, everybody around me was probably thinking the same as the entire hurling community. ‘Yeah, Cork have finally got it together now. They’ve weathered the storm. They’ll drive on. They’ll win this handy.’ And the Cork players certainly seemed to think the same.
I wasn’t so sure. Tipperary were playing with much more intensity. They were largely winning the dogfight. Cork had put them on their backs with an unanswered 1-6 in nine minutes but Tipp got up and clipped the last two points of the half. They were more or less saying to Cork, ‘Hi, we’ve taken yere best shots. Ye may have hurt us. But we’re still not going anywhere.’
Tipp had that look in their eyes from the first ball. They had that edge about them that suggested that they would keep taking Cork’s best shots, and keep swinging right back at them. Cork had the breeze, and a strong one at that, to come but Cork just looked like a team that –as everyone else seemed to think – just expected it to happen. And Tipp went and made it happen.
One phrase I have never liked is this term ‘Lay down a marker’. When Cork put down a massive marker in the Munster final, what did that really mean for yesterday? Did they think that Tipp were going to run again? Did they believe, deep down, that they would have Tipp’s measure, no matter what?
Tipp had all the advantages going into this match. Apart from motivation and hunger and hurt and the desire for retribution, Cork were always going to struggle to reach the kind of mental focus that Tipp were bound to have. No matter how much the Cork management tried to guard against complacency, it’s hard to change the mindset if it’s deeply ingrained. And it looked like it was.
Denis Ring will have plenty of questions to answer after this defeat. It’s tough to lose an All-Ireland U-21 final 12 months after losing an All-Ireland minor final but Cork were not in the place they needed to be for this match. Like, how does a team go from a 13-point victory – and pulling up at that – to a three-point defeat within the space of seven weeks?
On the other hand, this is a huge feather in Liam Cahill’s cap. The word on the ground last week was that Willie Maher is going to be the next Tipp senior manager but all bets are surely off now after this win. If Cahill wants the job, what more does he need to do to prove he is good enough for it? It’s a big step up at senior level but an All-Ireland minor and U-21 within the space of two years is impressive on any CV.
Cahill had Tipp just right because they set the tone from the word go. Being ahead by 1-5 to 0-1 didn’t flatter them. Cork had their purple patch in the second quarter but Tipp took up the charge again in the third quarter and never allowed Cork to get comfortable, to think that they could get control of the game.
The most galling aspect of this defeat for Cork was how poorly so many of their senior players performed; Darragh Fitzgibbon, Shane Kingston, Tim O’Mahony, Jack O’Connor. Mark Coleman and Robbie O’Flynn tried hard but the huge wealth of senior experience this team had in comparison to Tipperary was never fully apparent.
A lot of these guys are still very young. I don’t want to be unfair to lads who are so talented, and who have already made a big impact at senior level, but the manner of this defeat underlined once more the soft underbelly in Cork hurling.
Tipp fought for everything, as if their lives depended on it. Robert Byrne was the TG4 man-of-the-match but Brian McGrath was outstanding. I’ve always admired him and he was a rock again yesterday. So were Colin English and Jake Morris. They just would not allow Cork players to make that clearance, to deliver that pass.
I was watching hurling all weekend. Before this match yesterday, I watched Clarecastle and St Joseph’s Doora-Barefield in the Clare senior championship. Clarecastle won by a narrow margin but it was a game of inches. And that is what hurling effectively is now – fighting for those inches, everywhere.
Tipp scrapped like dogs for those inches, those centimetres, but they also have serious talent. From having come up against them at underage with the Limerick minors, I saw that talent first hand.
Cork were favourites for this All-Ireland from early doors but Tipp took a highly fancied Limerick team apart in the Munster semi-final, which made a mockery of the Munster final performance.
Cork were ruthless that night but Tipp were on the run that evening and Cork will not go anywhere at senior unless they develop that steel edge when the battle is at its fiercest. You’d have thought that the hurt from the All-Ireland senior semi-final defeat would have driven on those six lads – and the four more on the panel – but Cork couldn’t summon that anger. And that is a worry for John Meyler going forward.
Cork knew that Tipp would come with all guns blazing early on but they couldn’t silence that fire and fury. As was proven in the Clare-Galway semi-finals, when you go down by so much early on, you almost need everything to go right from there on to win the match. It did for Cork for ten minutes but they were never going to sustain that intensity for the rest of the game.
Cork will be gutted, not just the players, but the whole county. They expected this team to win a first All-Ireland U-21 title in 20 years, and for this group to provide a similar successful platform at senior level which that team did two decades ago.
There are still enough good players in this team to drive on and be successful at senior level. There are plenty of good young players coming after them too. The talent is definitely there but yesterday proved once more that Cork need to put that steel fist into a silk glove.
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