Hunger is Cork’s key

THANK GOD for the back door, it gives weaker counties like Cork and Kilkenny a chance to qualify for the All-Ireland final!

Only 56 senior titles between them, God love 'em.

My first All-Ireland was in 1972, and what a vintage year it was. Cork and Kilkenny, the first of many I saw between these two, but it remains the best. Certainly far superior to their two most recent September meetings; last year was poor fare, too tension-ridden by far; 1999 was memorable only because a young Cork team overcame the odds. On neither occasion did the hurling rise above mediocrity and nowhere near what you'd expect from two such outstanding traditional hurling counties.

Let's examine Cork first. Against Wexford, they were near perfect, every player dominant in his own position, really made Wexford look second class. The challenge facing Donal O'Grady and his management team is how to improve, or even match that, because it would probably be good enough tomorrow.

Having said that, the game that probably made this Cork team this year was the game they lost, the Munster final defeat by Waterford. Since then, on and off the field, the Cork performance has improved with every outing, culminating in that display against Wexford. Their style of play changed, becoming far more positive. Led by their half-back line, superb deliveries from Gardiner, Curran and Ó hAilpín, carried on by the midfield combination of Kenny and O'Connor, they are now attacking from all angles, perfect ball into a fast, mobile forward line.

Ben O'Connor typifies that mobility, inside his own half one second, driving into the full-forward line the next. Even Joe Deane has joined the outfield forays, with Brian Corcoran also pulling his man around the place. He did so brilliantly against Philly Maher of Tipp and Darragh Ryan of Wexford, two of the best full-backs in the game.

Most noteworthy in this Cork team however are the old reliables; the basics, blocking, hooking, winning clean possession from the opposition, turning defence into attack with a well-timed flick of the wrist. Isn't that what hurling is about?

The Cork defence is made up of six outstanding individual hurlers, but what's impressive is the way they work as a unit, with goalkeeper Donal Óg Cusack pivotal to that, constantly communicating.

Up front, there's far more ruthlessness about the Cork attack, really driving home every advantage, no let-up, reminiscent of any Kilkenny team at its best.

Which brings us to the Cats. The three-in-a-row quest aside, this Kilkenny team is on a roll. After the surprise loss to Wexford, they regrouped well, brushed Dublin aside, shattered Galway in a performance to equal Cork's against Wexford, then showed their fortitude in overcoming Clare after two bruising battles. They will not be giving up this crown easily.

The Kilkenny defence has been the gold standard for several years now, always sure, brilliant at closing down. Mind you, they will be facing the ultimate test tomorrow, a sextet of forwards backed by two midfielders who will be running at them. There are questions about the fitness of a few of the Kilkenny backs, but isn't that always the way? They come out then and hurl out of their skin. Nevertheless, the likes of Hickey, Kavanagh and the magnificent JJ Delaney, will be tested to their limits.

In midfield, Kilkenny are very different to their Cork counterparts bigger, stronger, yet still able to move, able to take their own couple of points (Lyng especially). Interesting tussle here, and the Cork duet would need to be aware of their defensive responsibilities, or they'll be punished.

Up front, I'm surprised at the line-up of the Kilkenny sextet, and I wouldn't be surprised if it's changed. Still, I can see a logic in their announced team; if Henry can get the better of Seán Óg, score his usual bagful while stopping the wing-back's forward runs, and if John Hoyne can do the same with Ronan Curran, Kilkenny are on the high road. But what happens if it's the other way around, Shefflin and Hoyne beaten? Bad news for Kilkenny.

I note also that the champions have swapped Brennan and Fitzpatrick inside, putting fast Eddie on Wayne Sherlock. Again, may happen, may not, but there is no doubt that Sherlock is susceptible to head-on pace, and there is no-one more certain to run at you than Eddie Brennan. And no, I'm not overlooking DJ Carey, more than pulling his weight again this year, most prominent when Kilkenny's need is greatest.

I think Kilkenny will want to make this a physical contest, stop Cork from running. I also believe that while everyone expects Cork to come out with all guns blazing, it will be Kilkenny who will try to set the early going, blitz Cork, take control from the start.

Regardless, hopefully we'll have a better hurling game than last year, or '99, that neither side has left its best form in Nowlan Park or Pairc Uí Chaoimh, from where we've heard parallel tales of crunching challenge games.

Regardless of the result, this is a fantastic Kilkenny side, and nothing should take from their achievement of winning three of the last four All-Ireland titles, six of the last seven Leinsters, two of the last three National League crowns. A truly great team, and it will take a great team to beat them.

It will be on the edge for the full 70 minutes of play, may even go over the edge at times, and the ref will have his hands full. Aodhan MacSuibhne has a reputation for letting the game flow even when it's on the brink, which theoretically should suit Kilkenny, the more physical team. Only theoretically however, and I'd love to have been the proverbial fly-on-the-wall at the Cork training sessions for the last few weeks (Kilkenny sessions are open).

The result? Last year, I tipped Kilkenny to win, and Cork almost proved me wrong, should have proved me wrong. This year, I'm giving Kilkenny that opportunity, going for a Cork win. Kilkenny had all that momentum, then were stopped in their tracks, not through their own fault but because of the crazy gap in scheduling. Four weeks, after playing almost a game a week in the qualifiers? Nonsense. Both teams, for different reasons, have the hunger, but the pain felt by Cork after last year's defeat, still felt by players and supporters, will make the difference tomorrow.

Back to what I said at the top: Cork and Kilkenny are due to give us an All-Ireland final to remember (for all the right reasons). I feel they will.

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