They’ll be on opposite teams and opposite sides of the pitch in Semple Stadium on Sunday in the final round of this year’s Allianz Hurling League, but John O’Brien (Tipp) and Cathal Naughton (Cork) were all comradely smiles in the most unlikely setting of Mitchelstown Caves yesterday as they posed for a few publicity pictures.
And why not? With the sun beating down from a clear blue sky it feels like the midst of June or July, doesn’t it?
And with these oldest of hurling rivals meeting in Thurles in a big game, that sense of summer is intensified.
O’Brien agrees: “It’s good to get the hype. With the way the League is this year every game is a big game. Sunday is a big one — other results could go our way. If things go well more than likely we’ll be playing again in a few weeks.”
If results work out this weekend then these two could be facing off again in a League semi-final. And that may not be the end of it as Cork await the winner’s of Tipperary’s Munster SHC assignment against Limerick. But instead of looking to the future, both players looked to the past and offered honest opinions about their recent encounters with All-Ireland champions Kilkenny.
“We were completely played off the field that day,” recalled O’Brien of their Nowlan Park trimming. “We’re not trying to hide that. They had a massive intensity we didn’t live up to and that’s our own fault. We know how far we have to go to rise again to get back up to where Kilkenny are. We didn’t play cohesively and we didn’t play using the ball well.
“We’ve talked about that since and we’ve worked on that. We’ve turned it around a small bit, we still have a long way to go but at the moment things are going better, we’re using the ball better and working harder as a team. That’s all you can ask for.”
By contrast, a young and transitional Cork side had a good performance against the Cats, beat them by two points on Sunday in Páirc Uí Chaoimh with Naughton’s two superb first-half points setting them on their way.
The sales rep & isn’t reading too much into that result though.
“For lads’ confidence it was significant and it was a home game, important to get a victory. It was a good win to get but it’s very early days. Two years ago we beat them in the League by a point and nothing showed up (in the summer). And remember they were missing Tommy Walsh, Henry Shefflin, Jackie Tyrrell — take two or three of those out of any team…”
But he sees plenty of green shoots. “If you get a winning mentality it definitely helps. We were very disappointed about the Galway defeat — we didn’t perform at all in the second-half. It was important to build ourselves back up for Kilkenny a week later but now we have to get our heads back down to normality to play Tipperary on Sunday. Tipperary and Kilkenny have been a level ahead of everybody else in hurling for the last two or three years. It’s important for the chasing pack to get up to that level and these are the games you want to play in.”
It’s another big test for Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s kids and Tipp are wary according to O’Brien.
“I thought it was a bit premature people saying that Cork were on the way down. I watched the Limerick-Cork U21 match last year and it was probably the best hurling game of the year in any grade. Go back to 2010 in the U21, Cork could and probably should have beaten Tipperary (who went on to win the All-Ireland). A guy like Jimmy brings confidence, he’s throwing in the young lads and they’re taking their chance.”
Tipp have their new boys too in Donagh Maher, Thomas Stapleton, John O’Neill, Michael Heffernan, but most eye-catching of all, and the man who might yet even beat John for a championship place is full-forward Brian O’Meara.
Time is running out before that championship 15 has to be chosen but it is all building nicely, isn’t it?
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