Before the door of Dressing Room No 3 underneath Semple Stadium’s Old Stand closed towards us, the first four of Liam Kearns’ words to his numbed Tipperary players seeped out.
‘I can’t explain that’.
The manner of Cork’s progress to a Munster football final on June 23 requires no explanation at all; where the visitors were fit, fresh and sharp in mind and deed, Tipperary were edgy, hesitant, shapeless and inaccurate. There’s only one winner there.
But the respective performances were sufficiently out of kilter with the norm to merit deeper scrutiny. So often have the Cork footballers fallen flat that one remains loathe to read anything too substantive into their 1-17 to 0-9 victory in Thurles, however seductive the evidence may be.
Nonetheless, when the victory is grounded in such fundamentals as hard work, defensive intent and discipline, hard running and support play, it is difficult to ignore. Easier, in fact, to see a strange kind of beauty.
It does a disservice to the regimes of Peadar Healy and Brian Cuthbert to assume this has all come about via a philosophical wand from Ronan McCarthy, but Cork’s showing on Saturday had many of the attributes of their new manager — no nonsense, no short cuts, what you see is what you get. If such are the cornerstone of success, the physical and technical advances evident at Semple Stadium advertise the areas McCarthy and his coaching team have been working on this season.
Nowhere was all this illustrated more than in the performance of Bantry’s Ruairi Deane, who has returned from the purgatory of a cruciate ligament tear to emerge as potentially one of Cork’s key men this summer.
McCarthy’s comment too, that Deane has “transformed himself over the previous two years” and had “made a decision that he had to go a particular direction — it was either one way or the other” underlines that the player has clearly turned his career around. He was, in the manager’s words, “truly magnificent” on Saturday.
At one stage in the second period he scampered back 70m to dispossess a Tipp raider around the defensive D, and he was a central figure in the best score of the match, a Cork thread of possession started by Kevin Flahive and finished fifteen passes later with a Mark Collins point.
The issue of Tipperary’s short turnaround from the Waterford victory is somewhat moot, given that their deficiencies on Saturday — technique, option-taking, timing — are precisely those which would have benefitted from a gentle run-out the previous week. Of greater significance, perhaps, was running into a Cork side they may have assumed would be tentative when the opposite turned out to be the case.
Tipp selector Shane Stapleton tweeted Sunday that they “didn’t see a beating like that coming.
“Cork were very good but we didn’t play at all. Haven’t felt this bad since our All- Ireland minor final in 2015. Feel for the players. They have given us everything and worked so hard but couldn’t give our supporters anything to shout about.” However it was on Saturday night as he spoke to the press gaggle that he employed a word one doesn’t hear too often in these days of precise conditioning.
Freshness. Of mind and ideas, of philosophy and approach.
“Cork looked really fresh and they hurt us. Their tactics were excellent to be fair, they got numbers back, and broke with great pace.” Stapleton may have been leaning on the party line we heard much of last week but he could also have seen what most of the 3,3339 others in the ground noticed: a Cork team playing with the handbrake off, without the straitjacket of fear and paralysis that has retarded so many performances in recent seasons.
From the barnacle-like Jamie O’Sullivan at full-back on Michael Quinlivan, to the sharp defensive reads of Stephen Cronin and the attacking ambition of wing backs Sean White and Tomás Clancy, and the deep-lying intelligence and cover of John O’Rourke, this was a Cork side with good shape, endeavour and defensive discipline.
Cork’s attacking ideas has pace and variety too, in stark contrast to Tipperary’s lop-sided reliance on Quinlivan and Conor Sweeney, who on another, sharper, day might still have had two goals and a couple of points.
Tipperary’s support running was thoughtless, taking no cognisance of the importance of dragging Cronin and O’Rourke out of their pockets. It was lop-sided too. Their mid-range shooting was non-existent until it became a thing of desperation — and some success — in the second half.
Even then, when Tipperary threaded together five points, Cork’s sideline impressed. Paul Kerrigan may only be returning from a period on injured reserve, but his possession play when introduced sucked the sting from Tipp’s rally in the final quarter.
Luke Connolly will command further plaudits, as he should, but Liam Kearns will take a serious look at his match-ups for the fact that the Nemo man was clearly the head-to-head Tipp needed to get right. Niggles during the game to Jimmy Feehan and Robbie Kiely mightn’t have helped in this regard but neither was Connolly’s original detail.
We will get a truer sense of Connolly’s capacity to deliver big on June 23, and one earnestly hopes he has Colm O’Neill in tandem with him.
If the Ballyclough scoresmith damaged his knee in Thurles to any significant extent, it would be a demoralising diagnosis not just for him and Cork, but everyone who admires his remarkable resilience in returning from three cruciate ligament tears.
That’s one stroke of luck his manager would appreciate. For everything else, pragmatism is central to everything. And, of course, perspective.
“If we’d lost,” said Ronan McCarthy, “I’d be saying let’s not lose perspective. I can’t have it both ways. It was a very good win away from home against a very good side. It is a performance the group needed, but we’ll keep our feet on the ground and keep working.
“Nobody should be surprised, really, because there is loads of ability inside the dressing-room. They are a very serious group about their football and if anything, they are probably too serious. They looked like they enjoyed their football on Saturday.”
Whatever few hundred made the effort to travel from Cork will feel the same.
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