Tomorrow they’ll have no excuses.
And if they do, claiming they didn’t see Kilkenny coming won’t be one of them.
It was different last May bank holiday Sunday in Thurles. Maybe Cork read too much into their defeat of Kilkenny at Páirc Uí Chaoimh a few weeks earlier. Maybe they read too much into the fact that the All-Ireland champions were now missing Henry Shefflin, Richie Power and Michael Rice. Maybe they forgot that to Brian Cody, a National League final is a World Cup final.
Certainly they didn’t allow for the possibility that their opponents might have improved substantially since Páirc Uí Chaoimh. And unquestionably, as the management admitted afterwards in sucking up the blame themselves, the Cork players were not mentally prepared for facing a Cody team in a national decider, with all the physical and mental demands the task entails.
Whatever the cause or the combination of causes, by the 12th minute it was all over: 2-6 to 0-1 in favour of the guys in the stripes after they’d turned back the clock to 2008 and unleashed their patented shock-and-awe routine.
The return of the king hadn’t been supposed to play out like this.
It’ll be different at Nowlan Park tomorrow. For Cork, it has to be different. They learned a number of lessons last year. Here’s where they must start to show they digested them.
Against Kilkenny they were shown the importance of iron mindset. Against Tipperary in the championship the moral of the story was about taking the right option in pressure-cooker situations. Against Waterford they profited from the blessing of a strong bench. Against Galway they had it painfully shown to them that if you can’t win sufficient ball up front you’re at nothing.
The bookies have them pegged at 3/1 tomorrow, which is overly generous. Cork may not win but they’re not 3/1 shots. Not on the back of their league form so far.
Even if the hammering of Tipperary had a false chime to it, albeit more from a blue and gold aspect than a red and white one. The draws away to Waterford and Galway were solid results and there was hardly much shame in losing to a fitter Clare. But now comes the big test, the truest indicator yet of Cork’s progress. This is the fixture they’ve been looking towards all spring.
Can they impose themselves physically on Kilkenny from the off, or at any rate avoid having themselves imposed on? Will the forwards win enough clean ball to shift the opposition defenders around the place and ask questions of their pace? Above all, the nice, neat points that Cork will snipe in the first half of the match — will they still be sniping them in the closing 10 minutes when the taps are turned on?
TG4 will be at Nowlan Park to broadcast how it unfolds. Would that they could do Sky Sports on it and broadcast all three Division 1A games on three different channels simultaneously. ‘Super Duper Sunday!
Nobody rises from the dead but two teams will be consigned to the Hades of a relegation play-off. A generation ago it would have been an afternoon for having a radio clamped tight to one’s ear. In the age that’s in it it’s a day for having an iPhone held tight as it pulses with tweets from the other two venues. A PhD in advanced mathematics may or may not come in handy at around 4.20pm.
With no fewer than eight of the 12 fixtures in the top flight to date being draws or one-score victories, it’s been a white-knuckle ride of a kind not natural in a season like this. But there’s one downside, and a significant downside it is. Two teams who have done little wrong will, through no grave sins of commission or omission, find themselves in a relegation play-off. They’ll meet sometime in April; here and now we respectfully request TG4 to put it in the schedule for live transmission le luas lasrach. It’ll be an infinitely more meaningful game than either of the semi-finals or the final.
However improbable a trifecta it is, two draws and a four-point win for Galway tomorrow will pitchWaterford, the table toppers at throw-in, into that play-off. And that would be a shame, for no team has punched its weight better than Michael Ryan’s team. They’ve no stars but they’ve all been stars. And they’ll never win a shootout, not in view of the gunslingers they’ve lost, but keep the scoring down and they’ll always be in with a shout.
(As an aside, a word on the exploits of Dungarvan Colleges, winners of successive Harty Cups and now into the All-Ireland colleges final. Although the Waterford team of the noughties didn’t taste ultimate success, among their multitude of achievements — provincial silverware, sustained consistency, compulsive watchability, the frisson of never quite knowing what Big Dan or Mullane or Eoin Kelly would get up to next — was a legacy left for the youth of the county. De La Salle built on it with successive All-Ireland colleges triumphs. Dungarvan Colleges are following suit. Was it for this? Yes. The good, far from being interred with Waterford’s bones, has lived after them.)
The others? Well, Tipp have mixed the good with the bad but at the moment stand slightly in credit because the win against Kilkenny, and its manner, effaced the memory of the collapse in Cork. Kilkenny themselves hurled better in their two defeats than they did in their two victories. Galway are the one county who are entitled to feel disappointed with themselves; the widely predicted bounce from last September has yet to materialise.
As for Clare, their semi-final spot should have been secured last Sunday against Kilkenny in a game they ought to have won by at least four points. For the record, the losers’ 12 second-half wides broke thusly. Bad shooting: 7. Bad decision-making: 4. Not a wide at all: 1. Nothing there that can’t be cured on the training field, happily.
A small but significant moment was John Conlon’s decision to go for a goal 15 seconds into the second half with a handy point waiting to be popped over. With a one-goal deficit to overhaul and 35 wind-assisted minutes in which to do it, a knockout punch was unnecessary. It was a useful lesson for an emerging team. Take your points and on a day like last Sunday the goals wouldn’t have been required.
Clare’s failure to get the ball in early with the wind behind them and to really work the Kilkenny full-back line held a message for the management too.
Successful teams possess flexibility, a Plan B that isn’t Plan A, the ability to hurl in two different registers in the same game. As yet, Clare do not. There’s more than one way to skin a Cat. Last Sunday they just didn’t realise it.
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