Odd ceist. Would you be comfortable bringing students from the University of California in Santa Barbara along to Tom Semple’s field tomorrow, to watch Cork and Waterford go at it?
The students at the U of C, for readers who missed it during the week, are an easily distressed lot. Appalled at the discovery that not every book finishes with the words “And they all lived happily ever afterwards”, they’ve taken to demanding so-called trigger warnings on works of literature, red flags to warn them about any plot developments that may scare the horses.
Virginia Woolf is one of the authors in their sights: the mentions in Mrs Dalloway “may bring back painful memories among some students of self-harm”, according to reports. Ditto the Bard: imagine taking out a student loan, only to encounter a vengeful, big-nosed, flesh-demanding moneylender among the apparently innocent pages of The Merchant of Venice. Same with Orwell: you unthinkingly had a feed of rashers and sausages for breakfast and now you find in Animal Farm that pigs can actually talk. What trauma. But hey, it is California...
Okay. I made up the Orwell one. But the rest of it is true. Really.
Anyway, heaven knows what the shrinking violets of Santa Barbara would make of Kilkenny versus Tipp. And prolonged exposure to the Ulster football championship would, of course, put them in therapy for the rest of their lives. But Cork and Waterford? Well, that’s a different matter. Bring the Santa Barbaraites to Thurles tomorrow and they might even enjoy it.
Cork and Waterford. Obviously the relationship isn’t what it was a few years ago, and may never be again. It reached the end of its natural cycle in 2010, when the pair met in the Munster final and Waterford managed to eke out a fourth Munster title in eight years — an achievement, by the by, for which Davy Fitzgerald didn’t receive due recognition at the time and one that, at this stage, has been largely forgotten.
At its zenith, the Cork-Waterford rivalry was unmatched.. Nine championship meetings between 2002 and 2007. Four wins for Waterford, four for Cork, one draw. An average winning margin of 2.2 points. Because both counties had their periods of dominance and because, as Brian Corcoran put it, hurling was the real winner, it rather than Kilkenny/Tipperary is the modern hurling rivalry that really ought to have yielded a couple of good books. It may yet do so.
And then, as it were, the pictures got smaller.
That Waterford would be hit by a string of retirements, nearly all of them of former All Stars, was foreseeable. That they’d also be hit by a string of injuries so long as to border on the ludicrous was not.
As the panel shows, no fewer than 10 of the 18 who saw service against Cork in the 2012 All-Ireland quarter-final will, for various reasons play no part tomorrow.
That figure doesn’t include the Fives brothers, both of whom are injured, or the suspended Shane O’Sullivan. How many black cats have been stepped on to incur such a catalogue of misfortune remains unclear.
That said, all is far from lost in big-picture terms. Waterford haven’t fallen off the side of the mountain as Wexford and Offaly did a decade ago. Yes, they’ve retreated some way down it but they’ve done so at their own pace. Ten minutes from the end of that quarter-final two years ago they were a length up on Cork. A few more minutes of normal time in the qualifier last July and they’d surely have put Kilkenny away.
In short, Waterford haven’t become irrelevant and they’re not going to. The reason is simple. Unlike Wexford and Offaly, they took care to water the flowers as they went along.
This is what’s allowed Derek McGrath to roll the dice with his selection for tomorrow. Four debutants and a fifth making his first championship start. It may go wrong, it may even go badly wrong, but what of it?
McGrath is building a team not for 2014 championship but for 2016 championship. He’s entitled to gamble and he’s to be commended for it.
Nor is he gambling with small change. Tadhg de Búrca and Colin Dunford are Harty Cup and All-Ireland colleges winners. Barry Coughlan shone for Ballygunner in their run to last year’s county final. Eddie Barrett may be raw but he’s a strapping lad who’ll help Kevin Moran keep her lit in the middle of the field. And for all that Austin Gleeson was the star man with the minors at centre-back, he does play up front for Mount Sion.
Besides, Waterford have Michael Walsh. And as long as they have Michael Walsh, they have a Brick on which a championship challenge can be built.
Walsh isn’t a stylist. He doesn’t strike the ball with supreme fluency or drive it 90 metres. Before he was a hurler, he was a footballer, and it’s not hard to visualise him as a key cog in one of those Ulster teams of the noughties. What’s more, he’d have fitted into any Kilkenny team of the past 15 years. Because the first thing Brian Cody looks for is character, and Walsh has that in spades.
Four changes for Cork from the All-Ireland replay looks about right, with Paudie O’Sullivan restored to the subs. In passing, here’s a subject that wasn’t widely aired afterwards but is only fair to Cork to mention all the same. With O’Sullivan fit and Darren Sweetnam present, do Cork win last September? At the very least, they’d have come even closer than they did. File it away in the drawer that contains other such imponderables as, what if Willie O’Connor had been there to mark Pat Fox in the 1991 final and what if John Leahy hadn’t hurt himself kicking football on the eve of the 1994 championship.
Talking of championship eves, pundits love to go on and on at this time every year about how it could be a big season for So and So and how Duine Eile could be a gamechanger. Not being one to look a gift steed in the mouth, we hereby posit that the coming months could see Conor Lehane become a more central player for Cork, existentially as well as positionally, with Seamus Harnedy the aforementioned potential game-changer at full-forward should he succeed in building on the promise shown against Tipperary in the league quarter-final.
Tomorrow? Cork by three. With no unforeseen late twist to horrify the students of the University of California.