The time to write off Cork is never

HIGH FIVES: Cork's Paudie O'Sullivan and Waterford defender Shane Fives reach for a dropping ball during the Allianz Hurling League, Division 1 Final at Semple Stadium, Thurles, last Sunday.

 

Were Cork that bad? Were Waterford that good? The league final should be taken in isolation.

Cork have done this before, more or less, and on the basis they may do it again, Cork being Cork and hurling being hurling, we’ll begin by covering our posteriors.

So: a quarter of a century ago Tomás Mulcahy and Ger Cunningham and the rest of them travelled to Nowlan Park on a windy Easter Monday for a National League semi-final replay with Wexford.

They contrived three points from play in losing by 1-9 to 0-6. If anything the tally flattered them, and Paddy Downey was not being unkind when he employed the words “ragged and inept” in The Irish Times next day.

A bemused Noel Skehan, sitting in the stand, collared Johnny Clifford afterwards and asked him what the hell was going on. “This is all we have,” Clifford responded with resignation.

You know what happened five months later, and if you don’t you can hazard a pretty shrewd guess. Cork 5-15 Galway 2-21. And Johnny Clifford wasn’t wrong; that was indeed all Cork had. Not a bad ‘all’, though, as it transpired. No fewer than 13 members of the ragged and inept outfit that managed two points, both of them frees, in the second half at Nowlan Park would start the All-Ireland final.

Which is why, rancid and all as they were six days ago, discounting the Rebels this summer should not be an imperative just yet. The time to write off Cork is never, particularly on the eve of the most open-looking championship since the late 1990s.

A motivated and cogent Cork: is there any team, other than Kilkenny and Tipperary at their best, you wouldn’t give them a shout against?

It could have been worse on Sunday, obviously. It could have been 17 points rather than merely ten. (Safe prediction: next time Waterford hit 15 wides they won’t win by ten. In fact they won’t win at all.)

In one way, taking their age and lack of experience as a metric, the winners were outstanding. In another way, judging them by their own lights and the structures of their gameplan, they were surprisingly sloppy.

They’d hurled with considerably more precision at Nowlan Park a fortnight earlier when taking their time about piecing their attacks together.

Here they lorried the ball forward quicker and earlier, attempting to hit their forward line from deeper, and spilled a good deal of water in doing so. Far from playing above themselves, Waterford can do better than this.

Two ragingly inane theories have done the rounds in the meantime.

The first holds that the losers, with one eye on June 7, were shadowboxing. Dear God, how many synonyms for ‘nonsense’ does the dictionary contain? They weren’t. They couldn’t have been. Not after the 2012 league final. Not after Croke Park last August.

It is not putting the boot into the Cork management to hold that their opponents’ superior hunger and sharpness cannot be construed as anything other than an indictment. Taking a trimming from Kilkenny in the 2012 league final was understandable; this has been a wasp-striped world for a decade now.

Taking a trimming from Waterford on Sunday was an entirely different matter. That’s 11 big-occasion appearances (All Ireland series plus league and provincial finals) for Cork since 2012 and four victories.

In passing, the 2013 All-Ireland final becomes more of a gorgeous freak by the month. Clare’s flop last summer and Cork’s collapse in the All-Ireland semi-final had already appended an asterisk to it, an asterisk that can now be replaced by the Timeform squiggle that denotes unreliability in a racehorse. In formbook terms the 2013 All-Ireland decider is not fit for purpose.

Which makes it even more of a treasure, if you follow.

Cork were unfortunate with Alan Cadogan’s early departure and Seamus Harnedy’s discovery that at long last Waterford may just have a goalie who’s worth three points a game to them. Some of the time between now and the provincial semi-final will be spent doing a thorough due-diligence job on their opponents.

This will mean formulating a course of action that doesn’t entail one of Cork’s spare defenders banging the ball straight back at one of Waterford’s spare defenders.

The other asinine theory to have done the rounds accuses Waterford of negativity. This is bullshit of a rare and lofty order. Waterford’s hurling could scarcely be less negative.

When they win possession the only objective is to get the sliotar forward and do so with constructiveness aforethought, give or take those misdirected long deliveries on Sunday.

So what if they defend in constantly shifting layers? Kilkenny have been getting bodies behind and around the ball since the 2006 All-Ireland final, and as Clare demonstrated two years ago an extra defender can be constructive rather than destructive once the spare man is tasked with starting fires instead of quenching them.

Although they’re superbly coached — they couldn’t negotiate their way around the field as confidently as they do without getting the little things right, starting with their first touch — McGrath’s signal achievement has been to create and impose a system that is a structure without being a straitjacket.

Pauric Mahony isn’t a stand-up centre-forward; here he isn’t required to be. Colin Dunford, the most unfifteeny 15 ever spotted on a hurling field, might be a little lightweight for corner-forward in a conventional configuration, but charging forward from the right side of midfield to take a layoff he’s an important outlet.

Above all there’s Austin Gleeson, who was significantly more composed on the ball than at Nowlan Park; here he was looking up before striking instead of driving for show.

Clearly Gleeson is Waterford’s most gifted player (Noel Connors is terrific at what he does, except his canvas is necessarily narrower), but equally clearly he’s not their most central player. Not yet.

McGrath has consciously avoided placing too big a load on Gleeson’s young shoulders too early and has instead found a role for him that compels him to play his position, nothing more.

By way of an encouraging comparison, Kilkenny moved Tommy Walsh to right-half back in 2006 and made him stay there, thus ensuring he didn’t have to try and be all things to all men in several areas of the field. And we know what that command decision helped lead to...

Waterford have already extracted more from the season than they could legitimately, or even wildly, have dreamed of. Contrary to the injunction in their theme song, most of their supporters understandably stopped believin’ a few years ago when the team of the noughties reached the end of the road.

The spring of 2015 marks the beginning in earnest of a new, ahem, Journey and signals the moment that allowed them to believe again. Such would have been the case regardless of the outcome in Thurles.

Before last Sunday they were entitled to hope. Since last Sunday they’re entitled to dream.

Were Cork that bad? Were Waterford that good? The league final should be taken in isolation

That’s 11 big-occasion appearances for Cork since 2012 and four victories


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