And yet it ended in a riot of red-and-white, the magnificent swathes of Páirc Uí Chaoimh covered in a sea of exuberant Rebel supporters celebrating a first Munster championship win over old rivals Tipperary in four meetings, the Cork players locked down for the first time all afternoon, mobbed by those same supporters.
What a magnificent display by Cork, a championship performance dragged up from memory, from the glory days of five and six years ago, and what a disappointment for Tipperary, so hotly fancied not just to win this Munster senior hurling quarter-final but favourites to complete a hat-trick of Munster titles, and perhaps go on to topple Kilkenny in the All-Ireland.
For them, this was a shattering defeat. In a game they had to win in order to maintain recent progress, they never even came close. After that opening salvo it was Cork. On 18 minutes it was 1-3 to 0-3, Cork’s goal coming from a drilled Patrick Horgan penalty after Aisake O hAilpín had been dragged to the ground in the act of booting to the net; at the break, 2-5 to 0-9, Horgan again with the goal, Aisake again doing the real damage, breaking down another huge John Gardiner centre, on which the corner-forward pounced.
Second half, Tipp again opened the scoring, Eoin Kelly with a free inside a minute, but again it was Cork taking over. A succession of points, including a brace each for Niall McCarthy, Ben O’Connor and Horgan, against just two more from Tipp, two more placed balls by Kelly and in the 59th minute Cork led by seven, 2-13 to 0-12.
Already the writing was on the wall for Tipp, but when Aisake, after a superb pass from Jerry O’Connor, found himself one-on-one with Brendan Cummins a minute later, it was up in lights. Aisake goaled, and the noise-waves reverberated up and down the Lee as Páirc Uí Chaoimh erupted.
Cusack was simply superb between the sticks, brought off a couple of mighty saves, including a brilliant reaction deflection of an Eoin Kelly shot in the 61st minute, just after Aisake’s goal; the full-back line, Shane O’Neill and Brian Murphy flanking man-of-the-match Eoin Cadogan, shut up shop after those early minutes; and the half-back line – what more can be said about these three?
John Gardiner, Ronan Curran, Seán Óg O hAilpín, so many times the game-winning line for Cork, so many times the game-breakers for the opposition, and so it was again yesterday. All three were superb, attacked every ball with real intent but with real discipline, absolutely tuned into the game, but none was more impressive than the regal Curran, a ball-catching machine.
In midfield, the new pairing of Tom Kenny and Cathal Naughton worked a treat, though here the battle was fiercest, Tipp’s young Brendan Maher especially to the fore.
In the half-forward line the experiment – the risk even – of playing the O’Connor twins alongside each other, with Niall McCarthy on the other wing, also paid rich dividends, as all three thrived.
Because neither Ben nor Jerry is the biggest or the strongest under the high ball, it meant that Cusack had to work really hard on varying his puck-outs.
Inside – and outside, because he was everywhere – captain Kieran Murphy ran himself ragged, worked like a demon. He didn’t score, but he didn’t have to – his full-forward partners, Patrick Horgan and Aisake did that.
This was the day a new O hAilpín hero was truly born. The former Aussie Rules player isn’t yet the finished article, but with his massive 6’7” frame, he was always capable of winning possession.
Forward subs Michael Cussen and Paudie O’Sullivan also impressed during their minutes on the pitch, suggesting that Cork may – just may – have finally found a new balance.
Not much written about Tipp above, but truth be told, not a lot to write, not in a positive sense anyway.
They were beaten, well beaten, only Brendan Maher, Michael Cahill and one or two others in fits and starts emerging in credit; no-one will know that better than themselves.
They don’t have a great record when forced to come through the backdoor – time now for them to rectify that.
CORK: D Óg Cusack; S O'Neill, E Cadogan, B Murphy; J Gardiner (0-2, 0-1f, 0-1 '65'), R Curran, S Óg O hAilpín; T Kenny, C Naughton (0-2); B O'Connor (0-5, 0-3f), J O'Connor, N McCarthy (0-2); K Murphy, A O hAilpín (1-1), P Horgan (2-2).
Subs used: M Cussen for McCarthy (61 mins), P O'Sullivan (0-1) for Horgan (66), L McLoughlin for Kenny (70+2).
TIPPERARY: B Cummins; P Stapleton, P Maher, P Curran; D Fanning, C O’Mahony, M Cahill; B Maher (0-1), S McGrath; N McGrath, S Callanan (0-1), J O'Brien (0-2); E Kelly (0-7, 0-5f, 0-2 '65'), L Corbett (0-2).
Subs used: S Hennessy for O'Meara (44 mins), G Ryan for C O'Mahony (57), T Hammersley (0-1) for N McGrath (62), J Brennan for J O'Brien (66), C O'Brien for McGrath (69).
Referee: Barry Kelly (Westmeath).