ENDA MCEVOY: Scientific hurling, please, you owe us

Want to know how Cork will play it tomorrow?

They’ll play it like they played it straight from the throw-in when the sides met at Nowlan Park on Easter Sunday.

Pat Horgan won a ball, took it on and went baldheaded for goal. Eoin Murphy produced a fine save. Luke O’Farrell pounced on the rebound and was unfortunate when his shot clipped off JJ Delaney, busy doing what full-backs are there to do.

While Kilkenny scrambled the ball to safety, it was an instructive moment nonetheless. Instructive as a result of Cork’s attitude. If nothing else it proved that the very public chastisement handed out to them by the champions in last year’s league final had seeped into the bone. Against this crowd you’re not going to win the game in the first ten minutes, but if you’re not careful you can definitely lose it in the first ten minutes.

More of that later. But first, PD Mehigan and what used to be in the long ago and what is now. Cork and Kilkenny. The old firm? All-Ireland classicists? The optimum and ultimate September pairing?

Frankly it’s about time they showed it. It’s about time they gave us a red and white and black and amber epic like the great biblical epics, directed by Cecil B De Mille and Tough Barry, they so routinely churned out in the past. Human nature being what it is, we get so hung up on the Cork/Kilkenny clashes of yore – the groundbreaking trilogy of 1931, the thunder and lightning of 1939, the last-minute heroics of Tommy Walsh’s granddad and Terry Leahy in 1947 — as to overlook the reality that the good ones were the exceptions.

One classic since ’47 and that’s the height of it. And leave it alone to the modern era. The 1999 encounter was spoiled by rain and two teams who contrived to hit more wides than points; 2003, ’04 and ’06 were grim, choked affairs; 2008 and ’10 over by half-time. They owe us.

So that’s our position paper for tomorrow and we’re not budging. Scientific hurling, please. A good, entertaining game with a few goals thrown in. At this stage it’s the least we’re entitled to demand from them.

Talking history, try this factoid for size. In the course of a rivalry that stretches back 120 years, neither county has ever beaten the other on four consecutive occasions. If they so desire, Cork fans can feel free to take encouragement from that nugget. Just as long as they accept there are very few records Kilkenny haven’t set or shattered under Brian Cody.

And hey, Cork were underdogs on the last two occasions they unwhiskered the cats. Then again, they were also underdogs when losing to them in 2003, ’08 and ’10. You say tomato...

Ponder the following as a plausible working hypothesis. In view of the champions’ marked decline in domestic scoring product, it shouldn’t take much more than 1-18 to win tomorrow. That, emphatically, is within Cork’s compass.

They’re far from the best team left in the competition. Yet Kilkenny, for reasons that pivot on their well-being rather than that of their opponents, are as likely to lose tomorrow as they are to lose at Croke Park in August or September.

They remain on their feet, wobbly of leg, slack of jaw, holding on when there is nothing in them except the will which says, “Hold on.” Though they can grind their way through battles of attrition, as they did against Tipperary and Waterford, they’re not equipped to run a 1500m race at 400m pace. If they’re to be beaten this year, it’ll almost certainly be by a team who can do the latter and – crucially – who force Kilkenny to try and keep up.

One good push and down they go. Death from lack of oxygen.

Cody has injured players, which is bad enough. He also has a flotilla of players who are carrying injuries, which is worse. A point made here on the morning of the Waterford game bears repeating. Suppose the MacCarthy Cup holders find themselves 1-3 to no score down after ten minutes. After reaching into themselves four times in five and a half games this summer (and managing a single goal from play en route), what remains in the head and in the legs? What can remain? That said, one thing isn’t in doubt. If Kilkenny get out of Thurles unscathed, all bets are off. To reach for an equine metaphor: they’re about to jump the final fence in a tricky series of obstacles down the back straight (think Sandown). Negotiate this one safely and they’ll round the home turn with Croke Park in sight at last. That’s when all their intangibles – experience, course and distance, Noreside folk memory — will kick in. Who knows, a few of the injuries might even clear up in the meantime.

There’s a different incentive at play for Cork, perhaps unknown to them on a conscious level. For all that’s been said about the current Tipperary generation, for all their failure to train on from 2010, they’ve remained an integral part of Kilkenny’s recent narrative. They’ve been there and thereabouts, they’ve kept Kilkenny honest, and Nowlan Park was hoppin’ on two occasions this year precisely because blue and gold constituted a major part of the colour scheme.

(Come to think of it, there’s an interesting topic for a learned monograph. “Kilkenny were blessed to have Tipp around whereas Tipp were cursed to have Kilkenny around.” Discuss, using appropriate references and quotation).

With Cork, not so. It’s been Kilkenny’s era. Kilkenny’s movie saga. Cork have not received even an Oscar nomination since 2006, the year two roads diverged in a wood. Now’s a chance to shred that script.

Seamus Harnedy, who gets onto plenty of ball and hit three points in the Munster final, has exactly the kind of dash and cutting about him that the Cork attack yelped for. Conor Lehane, whose first touch was markedly off the same afternoon, is at his best the type who could trouble Kilkenny in Semple Stadium. Pat Horgan being cleared to play was, of course, a bigger certainty than an Orange riot in July, but he can’t afford to spurn another chance like the one he put wide against Limerick.

Cork’ll need to mix it up as briskly as Waterford did a fortnight ago, alternating going short to midfield — thereafter to overfly the Kilkenny half-back line — with going long to Seamus Prendergast, for whom read Pa Cronin tomorrow. They’ll need points from their centre field duo. Their defenders, many of them conceding inches, will need to stand tall under the high ball from out the field. And pulling first time on the odd ground ball wouldn’t go astray either.

Will it be enough? Not if Kilkenny are close to their best. Whether Kilkenny will anywhere close to their best before next summer is, however, a very different matter.

It’s what’s known by statisticians as regression to the mean. Every so often Galway deliver on their promise and finally have a good summer. The following season they return to being Galway.

They reached the 2001 All Ireland final under Noel Lane but were beaten in the quarter-final the following year. They reached the 2005 All-Ireland final under Conor Hayes but were beaten in the quarter-final the following year. Victory against Clare tomorrow and Anthony Cunningham will have achieved something two of his most recent predecessors were unable to.

But his goalie and full-back were less than convincing in the Leinster final, the centre-back situation remains unresolved, the “Where to Play Joe” question ditto and the forwards no longer hit 20 points or more.

And Davy knows his best team. And his players at least know what the manager wants of them.

It should be Clare. Then again, how often do Galway do what they’re expected to?



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