As a hurler, I was many things. I was sometimes caught for pace. I wasn’t hectic under the high ball but I never let any of that stuff worry me because I mostly felt I could make up for any deficits by reading the game, having a sure first touch, and with confidence.
I rarely got nervous. I loved the big days. I didn’t always play like that.
I had plenty of bad days but I’m that type of a yoke that I still felt the big days brought the best out of me.
I always felt there was nothing to be afraid off above in Croke Park, when the place was boiling with pressure and intensity.
I embraced the challenge but, before the 1997 All-Ireland final, I was completely rattled, as nervous as a kitten. I was absolutely dreading the possibility of Tipperary beating us.
The only time I enjoyed the build-up, or the game itself, was when Dickie Murphy finally blew that final whistle. My case was probably heightened because the ‘Whipping Boys’ speech from the Munster final had placed huge pressure on my shoulders.
‘If Tipp win,’ I was thinking coming into that final, ‘they will redden me.’
There is always that pressure on the side which has already beaten a team they are now facing again in a huge championship match. The gun has been turned on Cork now but their mentality is different to most others.
The chests will be out. The young players will have no fear. Cork have to prove that they can deal with the five-week lay-off but there was a consistency in Munster from their big men - Conor Lehane, Seamus Harnedy, Patrick Horgan, Damien Cahalane, Stephen McDonnell, Mark Ellis and Anthony Nash – that I haven’t seen before. And most of them have been around for a long time.
Cork have been racking up big scores, winning shootouts. Their trigger-fingers will be itching to start firing like a scatter-gun but Waterford will want, and need, to make it the war that they didn’t back in June.
This is not going to be a free-flowing classic. It might be worth another tenner on no goals being scored. Cork didn’t score any goal in the Munster semi-final but Waterford will still have studied that game very closely to try and decipher how Cork still cut them open as often as they did.
The danger for Waterford though, is the potential to over-analyse this, to read too much into what happened two months ago.
Every game is different. Every match takes on a life of its own. I’ll never forget analysing Cork to death before Clare played them in 2006. We had rattled them in the 2005 All-Ireland semi-final, a game we should have won.
We were looking for those tiny fractions from that match to make up the difference but we got so caught up on studying Cork that we forgot to bring the same level of fight to the battle as we did in 2005. We got rolled over.
Waterford know the gains they have to make from June. Their intensity needs to come up. They need to be more accurate, especially with their freetaking. I don’t see Austin Gleeson ambling into corner-forward and then drifting aimlessly through the rest of the game. I see Aussie having a more defined role around the middle tomorrow.
I still think the Tadgh de Búrca factor is a game-changer. He is a huge loss to team, because he is so central to their gameplan, but I just wonder, too, how much the circus around his appeal has affected the group this week? I’m sure Derek McGrath will have done everything to insulate the players from that sideshow but that is easier said than done too.
The whole Colin Lynch saga in 1998 – when we failed to get Colin’s suspension lifted for the second replay with Offaly – did have an impact on our preparations. It didn’t bother me but I know it distracted other lads.
John Mullane said to me last Sunday that Derek wasn’t allowing the Tadgh situation to dilute the mood or confidence but a late-night lost appeal will have been a whole different challenge now since lads woke up to the disappointing news yesterday morning.
McGrath will have already prepared for the loss of de Búrca, long before it was confirmed. Darragh Fives will become the sweeper. It’s fine to say Fives will do de Burca’s job but who will do Fives’ job now? I expect Conor Gleeson will probably pick up Conor Lehane as a designated man-marking centre-back.
Apart from the momentum they’ve gained since beating Kilkenny and Wexford, the big advantage Waterford have now is that they’ve had three weeks to zone in on Cork. They had four weeks to get ready for them in June but Waterford had a serious mental readjustment to make
back then because they were expecting to be meeting Tipperary since the draw was made last October. Waterford may have been even over-confident going in that day but they also looked over-cooked from an 11-week break. The mindset is totally different now though, because Waterford really wanted a crack at Cork this time around.
Waterford went away from their core principles against Cork last time around but McGrath has returned to the philosophy which has taken Waterford to this point, the one which he believes can take Waterford up another step closer to the summit.
They nearly beat Kilkenny last year with a more attack-minded game but when they returned to their more recognised system this season, they beat Kilkenny twice, in league and championship.
I wondered what way Waterford would react against Wexford, especially knowing how Wexford would set up, but they got the job done superbly that day. It was ultra-composed, patient hurling. They waited for the break, which came with Kevin Moran’s goal, before driving on comfortably to the finishing line.
Waterford will want the game played more on their terms but Cork are playing a completely different style. I love the blend they have.
The cockiness is back. You could even see that with the U21s who put up such a solid performance in the Munster final without Darragh Fitzgibbon and Luke Meade. The U17s were really impressive against Dublin last week. I expect the minors to beat Dublin again tomorrow.
That Corkness is just back, coursing and bursting through their veins. It’s a totally different confidence than they had in 2014 when they won Munster. This team is better. It is better equipped to win a semi-final. The young guys have infused the side with conviction and belief. The Cork hurling public are mad for road.
For other counties, that kind of collective atmosphere and attitude turns into cockiness, which poisons everything. With Cork though, I always feel it turns into total confidence, an absolute conviction in what they are doing, on where this team is going under Kieran Kingston.
I fancied Cork, just slightly, but I think the Tadgh de Búrca factor has tipped the balance more in their favour now. I expect an epic contest. But ( and Kingston will give out to me for this ) I expect Cork to win.
Finally, I would just like to express my deepest sympathies to Tony Keady’s family after his sad passing. He was some player. An icon. A legend. Tony will be sadly missed by hurling people everywhere.
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