Ever tasted Marmite? Me neither. It’s no staple of Irish kitchens, meaning that the Marmite Test so frequently invoked in British newspapers fails to produce a chime on this side of the water. But basically a Marmite anything is an object that brooks absolutely no indifference. You either love it or you hate it. No in-between.
So there are Marmite songs and Marmite celebrities and Marmite whatever you’re having yourself. And there are Marmite teams. There are definitely Marmite teams.
Teams like Waterford. Not like Cork.
Waterford are Marmite alright. They have a method, a system, an unique selling point, a distinctive flavour. You may not like it but you’ll have an opinion on it. Among Derek McGrath’s many achievements this year, the most important in a big- picture context has been to get the hurling public thinking and talking about the game a bit more. To sweep or not to sweep, that is the question.
Cork, on the other hand, are not Marmite. They have no system all their own, which is fair enough; not every team has to. But they have no distinctive taste either. If Cork have a flavour, it’s custard. Sweet, digestible, doesn’t stay on the tongue.
They are a curious entity, in equal measure agreeable and unchallenging. They’re easy listening, with guitar ornamentation from Pat Horgan to enliven matters every now and then, yet there’s also something consistently reactive about them. They rarely set the agenda, and that’s nothing to do with the whole — now boring — Jimmy Doesn’t Do Tactics thing. Bizarrely, they were taken aback by Kilkenny’s aggression at Páirc Uí Rinn on Valentine’s Night, as though the visitors were somehow going to arrive bearing hearts and flowers for the evening that was in it. They had no idea how to counter Waterford’s configuration — not exactly a state secret, that — in the league final, which may just about have been forgivable. They had no idea to counter the same configuration five weeks later, which wasn’t.
If they did set the agenda at Wexford Park a few weeks back, it was only because the hosts were generous enough to allow them to.
Here’s the contradiction, though. Precisely as a result of their refusal — or inability — to overthink matters, Cork would make popular All-Ireland champions.
Because of their very normality, their lack of complication, their happiness to be who they are, their willingness to play the cards as they fall without recourse to bluff or finesse.
That they remain standing is a credit to their powers of perseverance. In the immediate aftermath of the Munster semi-final, the temptation was to dismiss them as a platoon of the living dead who’d zombie on only until such time as they were put out of their misery in July, and early July rather than later July.
Guess what? They’re still standing, and right now they’re more living than dead. And a date in Croke Park, very possibly with opponents to whom a large and mortifying debt is outstanding, is only 70 minutes away. And before that come Galway. And are Cork ever going to be terrified of Galway?
Opinions differed regarding Galway’s performance in the Leinster final. Two opinions at any rate. Anthony Daly reckoned it a fine contest in which Galway acquitted themselves admirably. Your correspondent reckoned it a mediocre contest in which Kilkenny posted 1-25 almost perfunctorily and weren’t obliged to do much more.
Clearly there are many reasons why one of us is a handsome and highly respected pundit and the other is, well, me. But really: apart from a goal either side of half-time and a subsequent streaky spell from Cyril Donnellan, what did Galway offer? What they do possess is size combined with a straight-line-to-goal determination that, while it didn’t discomfit Kilkenny unduly, will surely make for a hairier afternoon for the Cork defence and ask the kind of questions Clare lacked the physique to pose.
Jonathan Glynn troubled Pádraig Walsh early on in the air; Aidan Walsh will presumably be detailed to guard against a similar situation. The one stunning high and sundry mild lows of Joe Canning’s afternoon three weeks ago suggest that the perpetual mystery concerning his optimum position must now be reframed in terms of what position Galway can find for him that renders him least irrelevant. Tomorrow they may well let him go where he wants and allow the Cork defenders to do the fretting.
To return to an argument made here before: sometimes we get ourselves in such knots attempting to peer through the smoke of battle and espy which brilliant, revolutionary, searingly imaginative tactical wheeze has won a match as to overlook the reality that most games are decided by the basic elements in sport’s periodic table: appetite, hunger, hard work, application. All that plain, simple, revoltingly unglamorous stuff.
The aforementioned defeats by Kilkenny and Waterford were largely due to Cork being outworked; Brian Cody would have been appalled. The victory against Clare was largely due to Cork being the ones doing the outworking, a mindset exemplified by Brian Lawton’s hook on Tony Kelly; Brian Cody would have applauded.
If Brian Murphy isn’t careful, moreover, he may soon become the John Egan of the age, a man so widely acknowledged to be underrated that he’s in danger of becoming the opposite. The incident in the second-half where he stood up Shane O’Donnell by standing off him, but not too far off him, and eventually forced the error was an instance of corner-back play bound straight for an instructional video.
Look, there’s a pair of them in it, a pair that have consistently flunked the tests that matter most. But Cork may have turned a corner of sorts a fortnight ago. If they don’t concede more than one goal, they should have sufficient pointscoring power.
hat Waterford will put in a shift in the curtain-raiser is the certainty of the weekend. They did most things well against Tipperary, maintaining their shape and ensuring their conquerors were required to sing for their supper. The tradeoff for increased security at the back, however, meant that the attacker in possession was under pressure to go for his own score, frequently from an inauspicious angle.
Maurice Shanahan and Tom Devine were both blocked down in the second half when, with no support on hand, they had to turn inside, were forced to haul at their shot, telegraphed their intentions from a mile off and were easily stymied.
That said, of the losers’ eight post-interval wides three were old-fashioned rank bad misses; Colin Dunford hit a ball straight at Darren Gleeson that was as easy to put over the bar; and muffed short balls by Stephen O’Keeffe gave away two points. As it was, despite those sins of commission and omission, Waterford were three points behind with four minutes left. All told, this was a highly creditable effort for a bunch contesting their first Munster final in the first year of McGrathism. (Their second year under McGrath, yes, but the first year of McGrathism. There’s a difference.)
Had the wides found the target, one imagines Tipperary, who always looked to have a little in hand anyway, would have formulated a way of winning nonetheless, but that’s a different story. The reality for now is that Waterford are not using a machine gun; they’re using a repeating rifle. When you only have a certain number of bullets to fire, the room for inaccuracy is minimal.
Bottom line, the Déise are one really good forward away from Croke Park in September. Just not this September.
By the lights of the game plan, incidentally, O’Keeffe was doing the right thing with the two clearances that resulted in Tipperary points, absolutely; he merely did it badly. Some element of blame for the misread signals must lie with his defenders which, seeing that both incidents occurred in the second-half, prompts one to wonder if the fuel in the tank may be starting to run low. It’ll be no surprise if they tweak the system tomorrow to get Tadhg De Búrca, who in order to double-team Seamus Callanan played his most conservative game of the season a fortnight ago, 30 metres further up.
If McGrath’s Waterford have become the essence of reliability, the same cannot be said for their next opponents. But every so often, Dublin have a good day and three months ago they hit 2-23 against Cork in the league semi-final on the same afternoon Waterford hit 1-19 against Tipp.
Although Limerick totally and utterly caved two weeks ago, Dublin managed to discover a more coherent shape while muddling through, the twist being that their hero on the night, Paul Ryan, has always been regarded as a top of the ground hurler. This is a terribly dangerous fixture for the favourites.
Still. Waterford and Cork to advance. Love it or hate it.