Here’s an interesting question. Granted, it may be a little too deep and existential, not to mention downright unanswerable, for a Saturday morning, but let that pass.
How likely is it that what unfolds before our eyes in Thurles tomorrow will be a meaningful national league final? Not just ‘meaningful’ as in well contested, but ‘meaningful’ as in a match of considerable future significance, ‘meaningful’ as in we’ll look back at it at the end of the year, or in a few years’ time, and conclude that yes, that was a match that served as a major pointer to what was to follow down the road.
Some league finals do just that. Some league finals definitely don’t.
Galway hammered Waterford in 2004 (I had to look that up a minute ago) and it counted for nothing in the greater scheme of things. It certainly didn’t stop Waterford from flooring Clare in the first round of the Munster championship the following Sunday or prevent Ken McGrath hoisting the provincial silverware a couple of months later. Galway’s victory over Cork in the 2010 decider soon became similarly irrelevant.
But the 1998 league final, in which Cork beat Waterford, mattered because it demonstrated that Jimmy Barry-Murphy had rebuilt the crumbling jalopy he’d inherited and that greater things awaited. And Tipperary’s win against Clare in 2001 (I had to look that one up, too) assumed a new significance when Nicky English’s side went on to win the All-Ireland that September.
It would assume a still greater significance as a result of the lesson it taught Brian Cody.
Up to then Cody was agnostic, even slightly sceptical, about the merits of the league. That was understandable. He’d hurled during the 1970s and 80s, when the league was the league, the championship was the championship and never the twain did meet.
But Tipperary in 2001 opened his eyes. They demonstrated that winning the league, far from detracting from one’s championship preparations and performance, could enhance them. Why lose a match you can win? Why not have a cut off a trophy if you can do so without busting a gut? Not for nothing did the ancients talk of success breeding success.
Cody duly approached the 2002 league with the zeal of a convert. Kilkenny won it without the service of DJ Carey, Charlie Carter and Brian McEvoy, pipping Cork by a late point from a chap called Brian Dowling — top marks if you remembered that one — in the final. In September they regained the MacCarthy Cup.
Suddenly a new template had been magicked into being. The league was what you chose to make of it. It did count for something. And it could count for even more come September.
Kilkenny proceeded to reach the league final again in 2003, ’05, ’06, ’07, ’09 and 2011. In five of those six years they went on to win the All-Ireland.
That 2002 meeting of Cork and Kilkenny was notable for another reason. Although Cork would collapse later in the season under the weight of internal contradictions that had been festering on Leeside for decades, and the first players’ revolt followed, the match served as a road map for the next number of years. Here were two teams with obvious room for potential. They’d be heard of again and they were. Again and again and again.
Tomorrow’s final to serve as a similar road map? There’s every chance. In hurling much more so than in most sports, the history book on the shelf, as ABBA so perceptively pointed out, is always repeating itself.
Doubts have been expressed as to the value of Cork’s win against Tipperary last time out. Not by this observer, mind. Do you believe Declan Ryan is so devious as to deliberately run a non-trier in a league semi-final? Yes, Tipp are better than they looked a fortnight ago. But could it possibly be that Cork kicked on when push came to shove because they have a happier camp?
Clearly they were wretchedly unfortunate to lose Dónal Óg. One can’t imagine it’ll completely deprive them of an important voice in the dressing room, however, simply because one suspects that wild horses won’t keep Dónal Óg away from said dressing room, injury or not.
For their part Kilkenny were extremely fortunate with Richie Power’s injury last weekend. Last season was the season Power at last became their most important forward. He’s not as dynamic as Henry Shefflin was. He’s not as forceful. He doesn’t put the head down and go for the jugular in the same way Shefflin used to. But he plays with 360-degree vision, he stitches things together brilliantly and he never makes the mistake of trying to do it all by himself.
Kilkenny might win the All-Ireland without Henry Shefflin. They won’t win it without Richie Power.
It’s a mild shame that Cork have opted against starting Darren Sweetnam, an inordinately talented young man who’s built to take care of himself. A clash with Cillian Buckley would have been fascinating. Buckley has shown up well in his two starts to date for Kilkenny. But it falls only to the very blessed among the righteous — a JJ, a Cha, a Tommy Walsh – to make the starting XV in their first year under Cody. For the mere mortals it’s a three-year apprenticeship.
One other observation. Luke O’Farrell scored a belter of a goal at the Town End a fortnight ago from an opportunity a Cork forward of the mid-noughties would have settled for tapping over the bar. O’Farrell went for broke and lifted the net out of it. It may be a taste of things to come this summer. Don’t settle for a point when a goal can start or accelerate the process of burying the other crowd.
Is it too obvious to say Cork should beat understrength opponents tomorrow? Perhaps. But if they don’t, what of it? Defeat will have no implications, not even in the medium-term, and will say nothing about them other than that this is their spot on the graph at the moment.
And in the life of a developing team, early May and mid-August can be very different places.
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