It's a bit early for De Banks

IF the tickets are as rare as they say they are, then the discerning hurling fans of Cork and Waterford are obviously anticipating a classic Munster final in Thurles tomorrow.

They'll get it too.

Two really good hurling sides, and both on a high. Cork will be coming with all their usual colour and confidence following their big win over Clare in the semi-final, while Waterford will be coming in as reigning champions, determined to create a bit of history by becoming the first side from that county to retain their title.

Let's examine that recent Cork win, the reason for all this cockiness, the reason they go into this game as favourites despite the fact that Waterford were at least as impressive in their semi-final win over Limerick, especially in the drawn game which was the best match of the championship to date.

Before that game against Cork, Clare were the high-flying team in Munster, just as Tipperary had been before they were felled by the Banner. I expressed my reservations then about Clare, about the true merits of that win over Tipp. They beat a team that was flat, that was missing several key players, yet still everyone raved. Sound familiar? Clare without Seanie McMahon, Colin Lynch, David Hoey? Now they're all raving about Cork. I'm not.

I was impressed with them, don't get me wrong. On and off the field they made all the right moves, hardly a weak link to be seen. But that's just the point. Cork did have nine of their Munster and All-Ireland-winning side from 99 on the starting fifteen but the other six were very inexperienced, three or four making their championship debuts. All six sparkled, but can they play as well again? And know this also, those six are now heading into their first Munster final, a unique occasion as big and as pressurised as any in Irish sport.

Three of those newcomers are in the backs, two in what was admittedly a very impressive half-row, the third, Pat Mulcahy, maybe most impressive of all at full-back. And yet even in that Clare game, there were clear signs of vulnerability. Just after half-time, when Clare had their best spell of the game, Niall Gilligan missed a very good goal chance. I wonder now, if that shot had gone under the bar, would Cork have won as impressively as they did? Would they have won at all? When the Clare forwards, Barry Murphy particularly, started to run at the Cork defence, they made an impression. That could be the chink in the Cork armour, and be certain that Justin McCarthy will have spotted it.

Expect the Waterford forwards to attack Cork head on, from the first whistle. And remember, Waterford have better attackers than Clare. Paul Flynn is having an outstanding season so far, the two McGraths (and Ken especially is due another big one), Eoin Kelly, Mullane, Prendergast, they'll be going straight at Cork, and I believe they'll get the scores.

Of course, Waterford won't line out as announced. I don't believe Tony Browne is fit, and though Flynn did well at wing-forward last year against Cork, he's on fire this year inside, won't fear the heat around the Cork kitchen, not even from Diarmuid O'Sullivan.

What makes this game such an exciting prospect however is that the Cork forwards too have the potential to score heavily (and hopefully we'll get a dry day). Joe Deane is back on song, Alan Browne is lost a bit in the corner but he's proven at this level, can work himself into the game, while in Setanta O hAilpin, Cork have unearthed a true gem, the closest thing I've seen to the great Ray Cummins. He'll be a big lad when he grows up, won't he?

Important as these three are to the Cork effort, it's the three outside them that could decide Cork's destiny. Niall McCarthy will find the going much tougher against the wily Fergal Hartley, surely Waterford's most consistent defender, but the two on the wings, Timmy McCarthy and Ben O'Connor (brilliant against Clare) have pace to burn, and can do damage here.

The winners? You're not cock-of-the-walk after only one game, and I think people are getting too carried away with Cork. Cork fans singing De Banks after winning a Munster first-round? It was nice, emotional, embellished what had been a fine occasion, but there was a time when you only heard that in September. They're good, no question, very well organised, well coached, but how good are they?

There IS a question, too many questions for my liking, though the answers tomorrow could well prove me wrong. But just like Limerick earlier, this Cork team can still take the long road to September; Waterford can't. More than Cork, they need to win.

Waterford are more mature, are coming into this game as champions, have shown they can win the tight games, were winners over Cork last year, so they have none of the hang-ups of previous years. Cork will suit Waterford, because rather than playing a negative game, trying to stop them, they'll hurl with Waterford. That's their nature but it's dangerous, because this is a top-quality Waterford hurling side, and their attack especially will enjoy that. At the moment Waterford are on offer at 7/1 for the All-Ireland championship. My advice? Take it now, because if they match the Cork work-rate, and they surely will, I don't think those odds will be on offer tomorrow evening.

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