‘AH sure it’s only the league,’ — that’s a term you often hear at this time of the year, especially by fans/players/managers of a team that’s just suffered a heavy loss.
But that excuse wouldn’t be on offer tomorrow for the NHL meeting of Kilkenny and Cork in Nowlan Park. There is a lot more riding on it than just the two league points on offer. True, Kilkenny want those two points to maintain their push for a top two spot and a place in the final, true also Cork need those points just as badly, to ensure their escape from a relegation situation that looked all but certain just a couple of weeks ago.
But there’s a lot more to this than the mere superficial.
At this stage we’re only all too aware of the recent civil war in Cork, the third in six years between this group of players and their county board. And once more, they have emerged as a team under the most extreme pressure to deliver. On the first occasion they did so, Cork reached the next four Munster and All-Ireland finals in succession, won three of the former, two of the latter; last time out, however, 2008, wasn’t near as successful.
In their first championship match they were beaten by Tipperary, in their last they were sent packing by rampant Kilkenny — that one really stung.
To say that Kilkenny and Cork have shared the last seven All-Ireland titles between them is true, but with a slight imbalance. During that period Cork have won two titles, Kilkenny have five, and this year are going for four-in-a-row, a record proudly and covetously held for over half a century by — yes, you’ve guessed, Cork.
So this game then, while ostensibly for just two league points, is for a lot more than that. Kilkenny will want to lay down a marker, yet another marker of several this year.
Cork are about to find out how much ground they have really lost during their most recent strike. The comeback wins by the comeback kids in their two games since the end of the impasse, a one-point injury-time steal against Limerick, a four-point victory over Clare having been six points behind with ten minutes remaining, gave some relief from the pressure; this one is the real test.
The atmosphere in Nowlan Park this Sunday is likely to be a little more tense than for a normal league game, with a bigger-than-average crowd.
A match to savour, even this early in the season. “Why is that?” says Kilkenny manager Brian Cody, deadpan, before breaking into a laugh, accepting the obvious. “Any time Kilkenny and Cork meet it’s a big game, for both counties. There’s a great tradition there, a great rivalry too, and this is a good game for both teams. Cork had two very good wins in the last two weeks, the first game especially — they were well behind Clare coming to the last few minutes but they finished strongly, and that’s always a great sign of a team. They need the points from this game, we need the points — it is a great prospect.”
Cork have surprised a lot of people (including perhaps themselves) with the speed with which they’ve hit the ground — but not Cody. “I’m not surprised; you look at the players they have — players are players, and these are very good, very skilful; next Sunday we expect a test, that’s the way it is.”
Hopefully they’ll get one, but since a stuttering start to this league — a narrow home win over Limerick followed by an away loss to Waterford — Kilkenny have been running riot. A powerful performance in Salthill, where Galway were crushed, was followed by near-perfection against Tipperary in Nowlan Park, five goals up by half-time, with Clare then feeling the force last week in Ennis.
One big performance after another, and that’s with regular midfielders Cha Fitzpatrick and Derek Lyng yet to appear, All Star full-back Noel Hickey still on the bench and perennial All-Star JJ Delaney missing last week.
And yet — bad news for the chasing pack — they’re only beginning to hit their stride, according to Cody.
He said: “Very little has changed really from our preparation in previous years.
We haven’t done any hurling yet in training, the evenings weren’t bright enough, but the matches were coming every Sunday. We just get together twice a week, we’re in decent shape, working away — we’re reasonably happy.”
Where Kilkenny always take the league seriously anyway, under Cody, what really focused the minds for the last three big wins was the change in structure this year — an eight-team top division with the top two to qualify for the final meaning there is little room for error.
“Other years you mightn’t be too worried about dropping points, you could still make the playoffs, but this year only the top two qualify. We dropped two points early on, we were then in the situation where if we dropped any more it would have been very difficult to make the final. It has created decent matches, there’s great interest to see who finishes in the top two, great interest in the bottom also — no-one wants to finish down there. There’s no match you can target and say, ‘We’re definitely going to win that one.’
“Everyone can beat anyone else, every game is competitive, these are all strong hurling counties; it will be interesting to see how everything pans out.”
Can Cork maintain their progress, or will the Cats put a stop to their gallop? We’ll know tomorrow evening, won’t we?
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved