Cork’s vaunted half-line can’t be allowed to dictate matters

A LIFETIME of involvement in hurling has given nine-time All-Ireland medallist Noel Skehan a unique insight into the game.

And just like current manager Brian Cody, some significant milestones have revolved around encounters with Cork, leading to a healthy respect for each other’s traditions. Two years ago he was on the sideline when the Rebels thwarted ambitions of three-in-a-row and while he’ll be in the Croke Park stands next Sunday, it doesn’t mean that he will be any less emotionally charged.

He was seeking his fourth medal as a player (having won three as reserve to the late Ollie Walsh) when the counties squared up to each other in the 1978 final. Cork had won the previous two finals against Wexford and their third was a “traditional” final. It’s now history that Cork completed the treble, largely as a result of a Jimmy Barry-Murphy goal from a ball that was deflected past Skehan by one of his own defenders (Dick O’Hara).

“When I think of those Cork teams, the forwards who were playing against us were dangerous forwards — the likes of Ray Cummins, Seanie Leary, Charlie McCarthy, Jimmy Barry-Murphy. My God, it would frighten you now to think of it. They were a great team and I’d have to say they deserved the three-in-a-row,’’ he commented.

Five years later Kilkenny themselves had ambitions of emulating that achievement (following wins over Cork in the finals of 1982 and ‘83), but they never got out of Leinster. More recently, he was a selector with the team which was in line for a treble in 2004. Again Cork frustrated them.

“There was a lot of pride at stake two years ago (with the counties each holding 28 titles) and there will be pride at stake this time,’’ he said. “I wouldn’t like to see Cork going further ahead of us. It will take an almighty effort to beat this team. If they were to beaten it should have been in Munster — and they weren’t caught there!’’

Skehan argues that the two teams have enough to worry about without being caught up in all the hype about the three-in-a-row. It’s a cliché, but an All-Ireland final is like no other game, he points out.

“It doesn’t matter what goes before, how well you play, or didn’t play, in the semi-final. Form goes out the window. It’s about how players treat the occasion, how well they are able to get their head around it.

“Then, having dealt with all of that they have to go out and hurl!’’

“The best thing is to forget about the three-in-a-row. Kilkenny wouldn’t want to be focusing on stopping Cork and I’m sure that John Allen isn’t saying to the Cork lads that they have to win because of it. I remember two years ago Brian telling the players to think just about going out to play Cork in an All-Ireland final and that it was just ‘that’ match.’’

The way Skehan views Cork, he says that they have an innate ability to “hurl their way out of trouble, without panicking or anything else, and getting there”. He continues: “They now have the happy knack of being able to win, being to get past the post even if there’s only a point or two in the difference. People can say they have been lucky, but I don’t think it’s luck.

“They have won games with some of their players ‘not playing great.’ That’s the sign of a good team, a team that’s after learning a lot over the last couple of years.

“They got a tough game from Limerick in the All-Ireland quarter-final, but at no stage would you have said they were gong to get beaten. I gave Waterford every chance of winning in the semi-final. They had played very well against Tipperary and they had beaten Cork in the League in Cork, with 14 men. I’d nearly say it was their best performance of the year.

“A lot of their players were coming back into form and playing well before the semi-final. Still on the day Cork were able to hurl their way out of trouble — again.’’

His summation of Kilkenny is that they are ‘an improving side,’ after having ‘cruised’ through the League and winning what he agrees was ‘a poor enough’ Leinster championship.

Like everyone else, he found himself asking questions after the All-Ireland quarter-final game against Galway, having ‘owned’ the game for 45 minutes and played “really well”.

“I don’t know how it slipped but it slipped anyway. It might have been because Derek Lyng was put off, but Galway were beginning to force the issue and starting to get on top. The Kilkenny goal was in danger right up to the finish.’’

He was happy with what he regarded as a ‘further improvement’ in the semi-final against Clare, feeling that they pushed Kilkenny ‘as hard’ as they had against Cork the previous year.

Interestingly, while he concedes that Kilkenny’s full-back line could be weakened by the loss of JJ Delaney, he feels that Cork have had their problems in this sector too. The more he thinks about it, he feels Cork are in for their “hardest” game this year.

If Kilkenny are to win, they will have to come to terms with Cork’s strength at half-back line. The bottom line is that John Gardiner, Ronan Curran and Sean Óg “cannot be allowed” dictate the play.

“If they do, we are in trouble,’’ he added.

But, somehow he’s not expecting it to happen.

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