Here come the hurlers of Cork and Tipperary, peering around the curtain, all but tiptoeing into the limelight.
Remember them? Diffidence is neither county’s way. But this weekend’s Munster quarter-finalists have been lodged in silage grass.
The build-up, even by recent standards, fell flat. This week a former Tipperary star queried whether Sunday’s contest is worth winning. You can see his point. Calendar Munster champions have not won the Senior All-Ireland since 2005.
Over and again, this May offered distractions. That stirring denouement to the league — Kilkenny well beaten by Clare, a replay, and Tony Kelly’s genius required to separate Clare and Waterford by a last clip point — was a compelling spectacle. A bit of mystery got draped around Cork and Tipperary, as an after effect. It seems a long time since we saw them hurl in anger.
League form, here, is old school: More enigma than indication. Prior word said that May 22 was tattooed on Cork minds, championship the focus and league more or less a distraction.
Which or whether, Cork took off on a serious slide, beaten in the first three rounds (and beaten to the brink of humiliation). They arrested this situation by fronting up to Kilkenny under lights in Páirc Uí Rinn, when their forwards found space and scope to shoot. Cork were poxed to lose at the death.
The fifth round with Tipperary was handled with tongs, in that neither crew wanted to meet three times in succession (precisely as has happened with Clare and Waterford). Tipp won handily enough, without anything new wriggling into the light.
Then Cork scalped Galway in the relegation final via late goals from Séamus Harnedy and Patrick Horgan. Their terrible start morphed into something else, something difficult to assess. Cork now had two important dents on their shield, dents that indicate they can withstand pressure.
New manager Kieran Kingston opted for stimulation by scalpel. He let go five experienced figures after the league, a group that included Paudie O’Sullivan, brother of selector Diarmuid. Management never go wrong by looking strong.
The state of Tipperary’s shield is less easy to gauge. They remain beautiful to watch but hard to read. For all the skill, there is a lack where tight finishes are concerned.
This spring, Tipp found few new candidates. Michael Breen, doughty at midfield, and John McGrath, scintillating at corner-forward, are the exceptions. Tomás Hamill did not gel at full-back, as Waterford’s Tom Devine scampering past him attested. New manager Michael Ryan likewise wielded a scalpel, releasing six panellists in March.
There is Premier pressure. Speaking last February, Ryan acknowledged that he had already served six seasons, working as a selector under Liam Sheedy and Eamon O’Shea. He stressed that he would not be overstaying his welcome.
Clear implication? That 2016 means glory or his resignation.
The present Tipperary context is stark in a narrow way. Who would replace Ryan? No obvious candidate hoves like Sheedy did in late 2007. Tipp are not drinking in the last-chance saloon but they might be supping, this summer, in best-chance saloon.
The present Cork context is stark in a broad way. Leeside’s worst hurling famine occurred between 1954 and 1966. This span will be surpassed unless they go all the way in 2016.
For a county so rightly proud of its achievements, its winning tradition, this context is a guillotine. The fact that a Cork native is centrally involved in Clare’s waxing credentials sharpens the blade. The further fact that the Clare defence has become such a mean outfit under Dónal Óg Cusack’s tutelage oils that blade to a glare.
If hurling over the last 10 or 12 years were a film, it would be called The All Too Discreet Charm of the Hal-Forward Line. Shot outdoors on a big canvas in every sort of weather, it is a much-resented masterpiece in the genre of film noir et ambre.
Kilkenny’s dominance has been plinthed on their half-forwards’ ability to win pressured clearances. Clare and Waterford hurl in their current fashion on foot of a severe edit, with up to 18 hurlers in the space that previously held four or so.
A succession of fine teams have gone awry when half-backs were unable to get short precise balls to half-forwards drifting out the field. This factor killed Galway in the second half of the 2015 All- Ireland final, same as it killed Tipperary in the replayed 2014 All-Ireland final. Why spool the same narrative, the same ending?
Next Sunday, Cork will look to Bill Cooper and Brian Lawton (who had an encouraging league) to give them traction in this key area. The emphasis will be more elbow grease than polish.
Deeper again, the question spins on whether it is necessary to go the way of Clare and Waterford in order to gain sufficient traction. Sunday afternoon is an audit. Talk holds that William Egan will operate in a sort of sweeping role, dropping when necessary behind his half-backs. This facet will fascinate, since it seeks to dictate terms of half-forward engagement.
Tipperary worry a different crux.
Knowing they are good enough to win the All-Ireland is both a prompt and a burden. Polish, however lavishly provided by Noel McGrath and John O’Dwyer, will only take you so far. Verdi must give way to Wagner, The King of Comedy (1983) to Taxi Driver (1976).
“Ripeness is all,” goes the phrase. Tipp are ripe. But ripeness is next along from rot and withering on the vine.
Most of all, Cork need to perform. Their season (and medium-term prospects) would survive a non-lacerating defeat. Tipp need to win.
Full stop. Tipp need to win. Ripeness can pall.
Before we see this Munster quarter-final, Dublin and Wexford will contest a Leinster semi-final. The winner meets Kilkenny, who have yet to settle into 2016. How will Dublin’s flakiness get on with Wexford’s heat?
The former’s failure to land a senior All-Ireland in this decade, when the capability was there, centred on inability to perform as favourites or slight underdogs. Expectation tends to make them melt.
Ger Cunningham has innovated as manager but this flaw is hardly expunged. Although Dublin should win, Wexford will smell a chance.
As for Carlow-Westmeath and Offaly-Kerry in the Leinster round robin… Worry about Offaly hurling aside, those counties might as well have been residing with an undiscovered tribe in the Amazon.
Hurling man, fixated on Kilkenny, cannot bear too much reality.
Here’s a little extra sport: BallTalk TV preview the FA Cup Final between Crystal Palace and Man United:
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