Cork are out of surprises but Clare carry question marks

Two memories from the night of the 2005 All Stars. The Fat Frogs and my hot date.

Cork are out of surprises but Clare carry question marks

The Fat Frogs? A sickly, acid-green concoction of three different alcopops, and wildly expensive as a result. By 4.30am, this being back when I was still capable of staying up after midnight, there was a table in the bar at Citywest weighed down with 10 unattended, barely touched Fat Frogs. Real apogee of the Celtic Tiger excess stuff.

My hot date? Gary Murphy. Eminent political scientist, author, lecturer, TV pundit, DCU grandee, Barrs man, and Leeside diehard exiled in the unreal capital. Cork had retained the MacCarthy Cup a couple of months earlier and the hurling world was in a red and white period that appeared like lasting indefinitely.

It didn’t. The movies got small, a striped beast of awesome carnivorousness rose in the south east and gradually the texts from Dr Murphy became less frequent. Radio silence ensued for many years; those, as Chrissie Hynde might have said, were the happiest days of my life. But then a few weeks ago Cork located their inner Corkness again and the texts resumed.

After the Munster quarter-final: “Cork are Cork.”

After the Munster semi-final: “Cork are Cork.”

Half an hour after that last one, clearly on foot of deep cogitation: “Please tip Clare in the Munster final.” Funny guy, huh?

Sorry to disappoint Dr Murphy (I’m not, of course) but there’s no reason to oppose Kieran Kingston’s team tomorrow. They possess the momentum, they’ve regained their sense of self and the ripples are spreading, as illustrated by the monster attendance at the minor replay the other night.

What’s more, they’ve been a pleasure to watch. The purity and speed of Cork’s play this past six weeks has been a blast of fresh air. They’re doing it quickly, they’re doing it cleanly, and they’re doing it effectively, all in an age where moves on the field are structured to within an inch of their life.

And yes, what Cork do is painstakingly rehearsed, but their wristiness makes it look like it’s off the cuff. This is throwback hurling. The right kind of throwback hurling. Speculation about how it will fare against Galway’s armoured divisions is speculation for another weekend.

Are we underrating Clare? The possibility has to exist, even if Limerick didn’t frank the formbook at Nowlan Park. Clare’s semi-final win last month was more significant than may have been appreciated at the time, particularly by outsiders. It was the county’s first Munster championship victory in four years. It sent them through to a first Munster final in nine years. That’s a weight off the shoulders. It has to be.

In the process they crossed an intellectual and existential Rubicon. The three goals they scored couldn’t have been scored in the latter days of Davy’s tenure. First, Clare wouldn’t have had enough men in and around the 20-metre line. Second, because they didn’t, they wouldn’t have been able to put in those deliveries from out the field. Paradoxical as it sounds, the contemporary taste for placing a message on every ball has rendered the need to fire in the occasional messageless ball and see what happens to the break more important, not less.

Clare can’t do like Galway did on Sunday and put everything up in the air, secure in the knowledge the monsters up front will make it stick. But employing the entire length of the pitch at least makes them less predictable than they were last year, and that was always going to be a necessary starting point for Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor. An essential for them tomorrow is having the midfielders sufficiently tuned in for Conor Lehane’s runs to the touchline to meet puckouts from Anthony Nash, he of the highly creditable Stephen Cluxton impression in the Waterford game.

Colm Galvin can do better than he managed against Limerick and will have to. Tony Kelly’s irrelevance the same afternoon was easily explicable in view of Ballyea’s voyage to Croke Park but disquieting nonetheless. On the plus side, Shane O’Donnell hasn’t performed as well in the championship for four years while Conor McGrath, one of those rare players who visibly always has time both on and in his hands, looks set for a big summer. Striking a balance will be the trick. Clare cannot be unduly defensive; that would be to set the clock back. Yet they cannot allow themselves be opened up as easily by Cork as Tipperary were in the first 10 minutes or Waterford were in the 10 minutes approaching half-time. A straw in their favour is that there can no longer be any surprises from Cork. Everyone now knows what Cork do. Combatting the pace at which they do it is, obviously, quite another dish of crubeens.

Trying to predict the outcome of tonight’s showpiece at Semple Stadium carries one large caveat with it. An exceedingly large caveat, given that it weighs in at 6’3 and 15 stone 2. The outcome, in fact, may well have been decided by the time you read this. Michael Fennelly attempted to get out of bed this morning and — well, either there wasn’t a problem or there was a problem.

It says much about Kilkenny’s reduced circumstances that a 32-year-old has become increasingly more rather than less important to them.

If Fennelly starts and stars do Kilkenny win? Probably. If Austin Gleeson stars do Waterford win? Not necessarily; he was supernal in last August’s drawn All-Ireland semi-final and merely very good in the replay and they still didn’t win.

He and his colleagues didn’t push up far enough in the second half of the replay, an error that must not be repeated tonight. Nor can Gleeson indulge in his penchant for the Hollywood ball from distance, particularly not if Maurice Shanahan is inside screaming for a sight of the sliotar.

The real cause of Waterford’s no-show against Cork, if indeed there was one overriding explanation, may never be known. They played a match between themselves behind closed doors not long beforehand and they were purring. They played a match behind closed doors at Walsh Park the following Saturday and they were purring. What happened in between?

A plausible rationale is that they’d been looking ahead to the Munster semi-final for so long that they snake-charmed themselves and in the process mislaid their edge. Analysis begot over-analysis which begot paralysis. Stephen O’Keeffe, Jamie Barron and Pauric Mahony got off the bus three weeks ago. Hardly anyone else did.

Then again, Waterford’s upward mobility was never going to continue indefinitely. Sometimes a team, having come so far, has to stand still for a season or two before exiting the holding pattern and making the final push for the summit. It comes with the dynamics of building championship winners.

We don’t normally associate Kilkenny teams with blinding speed but Walter Walsh, Ger Aylward and Colin Fennelly can all shift and will all love the open sward of Semple Stadium. Nonetheless the most in-form Kilkenny attacker of the moment is Seanie Maguire of Cork City rather than Richie Hogan of Danesfort. In better news, the return of Pádraig Walsh to the full-back line last week provided the scope for Paul Murphy to produce his best form in ages.

Waterford have been getting closer and closer to their neighbours without notching a first championship victory since the 1959 All-Ireland replay. Does this mean they’re somehow due, or overdue, a win? Cold logic says not. But on the law of averages it’s time for them to beat Kilkenny and in hurling the law of averages is not to be easily dismissed.

So to recap. Cork on Sunday. Whoever you’re having yourself tonight. A surprise in the curtain-raiser: Tipp to win. And Gary Murphy to celebrate tomorrow night with a couple of Fat Frogs like it’s 2005 all over again.

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