Rebels have rediscovered the old swagger

Cork won’t have it all their own way, but have the confidence and the character to earn a perfect send-off to Páirc Uí Chaoimh

Rebels have rediscovered the old swagger


Cork v Limerick

Another Munster showpiece and, taking place where it does, and involving who it does, an apposite one. Páirc Uí Chaoimh and green on red, just the way it began for Jimmy Barry-Murphy 18 years ago on his championship debut on the other side of the whitewash.

May 26, 1996 on De Banks. Limerick 3-18 Cork 1-8. The most one-sided encounter involving a bunch of Cork lads since Kilmichael, albeit this one with a very different outcome, and the end of an undefeated home record that stretched back over 70 years. And it rained, as though the very heavens themselves were weeping for poor Jimmy, the man who’d come back when he needn’t have.

(Note to pedants: yes, it rained in Croke Park on the second Sunday of September three years later, but that was rain with a different texture. It didn’t wet Cork people, only Kilkenny folk).

Nearly two decades on, plus ca change. It’s still Cork, it’s still Limerick, it’s still the Munster championship and it’s still JBM, a man so eternally youthful-looking he may well have Dorian Gray’s picture at home in his attic. It’s still Páirc Uí Chaoimh too, never a famous beauty to begin with, now raddled to the point of ridiculousness but thankfully no more after tomorrow. Goodbye to where some giants — Prince, U2, Springsteen, Billy Morgan, all those Kerry footballers — sported and played, and good riddance. Thirty eight years use out of one stadium scarcely constitutes the greatest value.

That the hosts are the general fancy for a first provincial title in eight years is little surprise. If the destination of the 2014 All-Ireland were to be decided here and now on the basis of a simple sharpshooting exercise, who’d win? Not Dublin or Offaly or Waterford or Wexford. Not Limerick. Not Clare in their present form. Not Kilkenny: overly reliant on TJ Reid and, in view of Eoin Larkin’s redeployment out the field, largely operating with five forwards.

That leaves us with Tipperary, who on their good days, such as last Saturday, would relish a your-turn-now-my-turn scenario, and with Cork. Cork of the 1-21 against Waterford when off colour, the 0-28 against the Déise second time around and the 2-23 against the All-Ireland champions. They’ve been making it look easy.

One caveat. It’s Limerick they face tomorrow. Not exactly the Harlem Globetrotters, nor the Germans of last Tuesday, but a team bristling with spiky individuals nonetheless. Seamus Hickey, Tom Condon, Paul Browne, James Ryan, Declan Hannon, Kevin Downes. A fine platform on which to build a performance. The phrase “they’ll give ‘em plenty of it” could have been coined with this Limerick XV in mind.

In passing, it is always a pleasure to watch Hickey play, his sweep and fearlessness so perfectly chiming with that adjective beloved of the old-time scribes: “grand”. Some hurlers look as if they could only operate in the generation into which they were born; it is no leap to envision Hickey as a colleague of the Mackeys, Timmy Ryan and the rest on the Limerick side of the 1930s.

Both strategically and tactically, the visitors got it right at Semple Stadium last month, their blend a harmonious mixture of the short and the long. The hand- passing was done in moderation and with a purpose in mind. They were themselves and they were true to themselves.

And fortune favoured the bold. Instead of returning to the phased 20-man game that had seen them through Munster last summer, TJ Ryan went for it by front-loading the attack with scoring forwards. What was needed after that was leadership, and the leaders raised their hands. James Ryan, hustling and harrying in midfield. Donal O’Grady dropping deep for the quick-fire brace of points that revived drooping spirits early in the second half. Shane Dowling with the composure to wheel around onto his left for the equalising goal. Hickey storming forward for the clinching point.

What poise they’ll bring to their duties in the final 40 metres of the field tomorrow remains to be seen. Ryan’s final ball, particularly if it’s a long ball, can be erratic. Although Graeme Mulcahy paid his way against Tipperary in terms of winning frees, the corner-forwards buzzed without stinging; the introduction of David Breen may allow Dowling add a greater threat to the inside line.

That 2-9 of their 2-18 in the semi-final came from Dowling is a tad disquieting, ditto the fact it took them 17 minutes to score from play. But soft, what’s this?

Oh yes — four of Cork’s starting forwards failed to register from play against Clare, Patrick Horgan included. And do the hosts’ three previous runs count for much more than Limerick’s one? It is doubtful.

Ignore, incidentally, portentous-sounding journalists declaiming that it’s more than merely the 2014 title that’s at stake for Limerick tomorrow and that they’re seeking to validate last year’s triumph too. This is nonsense. Granted, the All-Ireland semi-final debacle necessitated a reappraisal of their provincial triumph — home advantage for both games, the dismissal of Horgan in the final — but it did not put a question mark over it. Limerick won the title on its, and their, merits.

Tomorrow they attempt to win the 2014 version, not the 2013 version all over again. Given that battalions of sports psychologists warn against teams trying to play again a game they’ve lost, how foolish it would be for anyone to try and play again a game they’ve won.

Paul Browne versus Daniel Kearney is a midfield match made in heaven. Both tear into it. Both can funnel back, both can charge forward and have a cut. A high-scoring draw, perhaps?

Alan Cadogan remains on course to be the most fouled player of the championship. Tom Condon — fast, aggressive and not particularly choosy — has many of the attributes necessary to cope with him. But Condon can’t be blatant and going ploughing into him from behind.

Even if the high ball to the edge of the square is a goalkeeper’s trickiest challenge — he’s required to simultaneously guard his patch, watch the sliotar, marshal his full-back and keep an eye on the full-forward — Anthony Nash didn’t cover himself in glory for Clare’s two goals. Now that he and his frees are no longer a novelty act in the circus, he’ll be expected to be sharper tomorrow.

On the evidence of his three outings to date, Horgan has made the leap from being dangerous scoring forward of the past two seasons to a hunter-gatherer; Cadogan is sheer electricity; Aidan Walsh’s presence furnishes a supplementary aerial target. Conor Lehane is still not being seen in more than flashes while Pa Cronin hasn’t been contributing enough when he hasn’t his paw aloft.

In a macro context here’s something that may have escaped attention. JBM, now three years into his second coming, has rebuilt the team while we were watching, or perhaps while we were sleeping. Only six of the outfielders remain from the side beaten by Galway in the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final. This is, very definitely and definitively, Jimmy’s team. Older readers will recall that it wasn’t until a previous Cork group had definitively become Jimmy’s team in 1999 that an All-Ireland was won.

What’s more, they’re a team with recognisable individuals, of the sort Kilkenny and Tipperary — by sheer dint of being in finals — have long possessed but that Cork have lacked since the passing of their mid-00s iteration. Nash for obvious reasons. Cahalane after only three starts. Walsh, the skyscraper with legs. Cadogan. Horgan, sufficiently emboldened as to be essaying the John Fitzgibbon/Christ the Redeemer celebration routine. Faceless names with helmets have given way to characters for the men in the red and white sombreros to hang their dreams on.

We expect Wexford to be big and bold and dashing and romantic, imbued with the spirit of the pike men. We expect Kilkenny to be silent and deadly, understated Oscar-winning performers whose personality and domestic lives away from the screen we’re treated to only the rarest glimpses of. And we expect Cork, being Cork, to ooze distilled Hollywood, to be larger than life and absolutely full of themselves in the right kind of way. These guys are getting there. How odd their manager is the antithesis of the caricature.

Limerick had the run of the race last year. Cork may have it tomorrow.

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