We may all be back in October

FROM the outside, Cork hurlers appear perfectly prepared for an All-Ireland final. From what we know, they are injury-free, certainly not short on motivation and not lacking in confidence.

But, nobody doubts that the prospect of depriving Kilkenny of the three-in-a-row gives management and players the biggest incentive of all.

It's easy to forget that Cork opened their campaign against Kerry, which was no test; Limerick made them fight hard and Waterford won against the odds in the Munster final after having John Mullane sent off. Their form has been on an upward curve since they came out for the second half of the qualifier game with Tipperary in Killarney. It earned them an impressive win, boosted by the goals from Niall and Timmy McCarthy in a rare display of half-forward power. That day they turned the corner, demonstrated that they were going to be serious contenders.

Nothing that has happened since has changed that view. They were always going to beat Antrim and Wexford were a huge disappointment. Even allowing for the brilliance of Cork's hurling on the day, they failed almost totally to play up to standard. Their half-forward line was virtually non-existent and allowed the Cork half-backs time and space they would not normally expect in any serious championship game and which they certainly won't be given by Kilkenny.

Cork's style what Fan Larkin described as a 'possession game' - is similar to the running/passing style perfected by Newtownshandrum in their remarkable club championship campaign. It's a 15-man game, one in which twin brothers Jerry and Ben O'Connor have been every bit as influential as they were with their club. In particular Jerry's form has been a revelation, given he was never able to command a regular place and had to be content with a place on the bench when Ben shared in the 1999 triumph.

However, the management have to be credited with changing around the team, given that in the Limerick game Tom Kenny was at right half-back, John Gardiner partnered Mickey O'Connell at midfield and Ben and Jerry operated at centre and full-forward respectively. And, one can't talk about progress at midfield without acknowledging the huge input from Kenny, who has really blossomed.

The Kilkenny line-up has changed little, with all but two of the players involved in last year's final starting tomorrow. The only significant alteration sees Tommy Walsh operating in defence, where he has been making a huge impact, consistent with the promise he showed as a defender at underage level. Last year, at right half-forward, he scored three early points which helped inspire a dominant Kilkenny performance in the first half.

Cork stormed back in the second half, led for a period but missed crucial scores before Martin Comerford decided the issue with a late goal.

Brian Cody has described the Cork display against Wexford as the best seen all season, but I would regard Kilkenny's performance against Galway as even better one reason being that the opposition was stronger.

However, they struggled against Clare and would probably have lost but for the outstanding goalkeeping of James McGarry. They showed character in overcoming the loss of Walsh (after he was sent off) and likewise they excelled in the replay after Henry Shefflin was forced off injured.

Their semi-final game was another tight affair, with Waterford handicapped by the loss of John Mullane through suspension and their long lay-off. But, they were still very competitive and might well have caused an upset if they managed a goal.

Conversely, there wouldn't have been a question of them coming back if Kilkenny had converted half the chances they created, running up 17 wides over the two halves. Brian Cody doesn't deny that a repeat of this could cost them the title.

There will be some key individual battles, between Ben O'Connor and J.J. Delaney, for instance and those involving the respective centre-backs. Ronan Curran has been awesome for Cork, while Peter Barry showed signs in the last day of coming back to his very best. Niall McCarthy will be hoping to score more off Barry and John Hoyne (very much under-rated) against Curran, likewise. It would appear that the battle for supremacy at half-back could have a major bearing on the outcome, though don't expect either side to dominate in any particular area for the whole game. The challenge for both teams will be to maximise possession during periods of dominance. Cork didn't do it in last year's final (they had 16 wides), Kilkenny haven't managed it in either of their last two games: Intriguing.

On paper, Cork are better positioned to win this time, but in my opinion Kilkenny still offer more potential. In form, with Henry Shefflin contributing like he has and D.J. Carey continuing to provide valuable support play, I would favour them to triumph.

But, I can't get the idea out of my head that it will be a draw. The last one was in 1959, between Waterford and Kilkenny.

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