That Oscar Wilde won’t be in Thurles tomorrow makes no difference. We know implicitly what he’d say.
“There’s only one thing worse than losing the first round of the Munster championship,” he’d declaim, pausing. “And that’s winning it.”
Cue sycophantic titters from his green carnation-flourishing fans in the penthouse suite of Hayes’s Hotel.
Lose tomorrow and there will be blood alright. Blood on the walls on Leeside or among the homes of Tipperary. This is Cork and Tipp, after all. But only a certain amount of blood and only for a few days. The contract cleaners will eventually turn up, May 22 will be consigned to memory in the way that championship defeats usually are, June will come and go and on the first Saturday of July, tomorrow’s losers will embark on their All-Ireland campaign from the launchpad of the qualifiers, one or two harsh lessons having been learned (or not) in the meantime and perhaps one or two new faces having been introduced in a bid to solve problems that manifested themselves in Thurles.
This isn’t wishful thinking. This is how it happens.
It’s how it happened for Tipperary after Cork chased them out of Páirc Ui Chaoimh in 2010. It’s how it happened for them again two years ago after Limerick caught them on the finishing line at Semple Stadium. The first of those defeats was rendered sublimely irrelevant come the following September, the second of them passed — very nearly so, give or take a couple of John O’Dwyer inches.
The sun will rise on Monday for the losers. For the winners, life’s troubles will merely be beginning.
Limerick — a Limerick riddled with limitations yet capable of just about anything, and the more dangerous because of that range of possibilities — in the semi-final? Hmm. A prospective provincial decider against a grooved Clare or Waterford? Hmm again. Victory there and five weeks of doing nothing hoves into view. All questions on the dangers of the latter topic to the Cork of 2014.
Victory tomorrow will say nothing much about the winners’ chances of capturing the Munster title and still less about their chances of September glory. Both teams want to win, naturally. Careful what you wish for, though; you might get it. More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones. (St Teresa of Avila, not St Oscar.) The fixture attracted over 42,000 spectators in 2008, over 35,000 in ’09 and nearly 37,000 in 2010. This being the first round, an attendance in the region of 30,000 will constitute satisfactory going. Cork and Tipp still matters. Not as much as it mattered in the old days, of course, but it matters to Cork and it matters to Tipperary. And it matters to Kieran Kingston and it matters to Michael Ryan.
To some extent it matters more to Kingston. One of the papers recently empanelled five pundits to name their quartet of All-Ireland semi-finalists. None of them opted for Cork. Not one. Then again, why should they have?
In a way Cork have never recovered from the 2006 All-Ireland final. Not only have they not been the dominant hurling power since then, they haven’t – far more painfully - been a dominant hurling power since then. Even their innate and essential Corkness couldn’t quite get them over the line in the final stride in 2013, the one summer that Kilkenny and Tipperary were removed from the equation.
Seamus Leahy made the interesting and not necessarily obvious point in his book, The Tipp Revival, that the most discouraging element of the 1971-89 period was less the county’s lack of silverware, more their lack of relevance. Tipperary were no longer any part of the national hurling discourse — not after the month of June anyway.
Therein lies the challenge for Kingston. Not to win All Irelands — that’s an aspiration, the equivalent of a high-flown statement of intent in a party manifesto — but to restore Cork to relevance. They don’t have to win this Munster championship and they probably won’t. They don’t have to win the All-Ireland and it’ll be staggering if they do. Kingston doesn’t yearn to be the messiah; he may not even yearn to be a John the Baptist figure. But if he leaves Cork hurling in a place where they feature in the pundits’ All-Ireland semi-final quartets again he’ll have done his job.
That’s all that can be asked of him in big-picture terms. In small-picture terms, on the other hand, nothing less than a spirited, cogent and intelligent performance must be demanded of him tomorrow.
This is the day Cork throw the big punch. They’ve been winding up to it all spring. It has to land and it has to be heavy enough to floor Tipp, after which the portcullis has to come down with a clank.
For too long Cork have been both nice to look and nice to play against. They’ll score at will if you give them the chance and are generous enough to return that particular compliment in full.
But that will only be the start of it. Even if the punch does land and floor Tipp, what next? How many shots will be left in the locker? Worries for another day, one might retort, and fair enough. For Cork tomorrow is and can only be, pace Scarlett O’Hara, simply tomorrow.
The rumbustious night they hosted Kilkenny at Páirc Uí Rinn two months ago indicated what they’re capable of dragging out of themselves. They stuck Seamus Harnedy on the edge of the square and had everyone else working a double shift, chugging back and forward from deep. Nothing rocket-sciency about it, clearly, and such a configuration can be countered by the opposition sticking a spare man in front of — or behind — the full-back line (as Kilkenny chose not to do).
But so what? There was a plan and there was application and on the night it yielded everything but a win.
Cork had an identity that evening. They had determination and application. They’d also digested the lesson from last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final about defending being a collective rather than an individual imperative.
Tomorrow will show if the lesson has stuck.
What’s more, defending from the front counts for more against Tipperary than it does against any other team in the land.
A Tipp defeat is usually less to do with their forwards and midfielders failing to raise a sufficient tally from the available possession than it is to do with the opposition’s forwards and midfielders keeping the sliotar down that end of the field, thus denying them the necessary possession.
Death by asphyxiation, as suffered by Tipp against Galway last August and against Kilkenny in the 2014 replay.
Up to a year ago Tipperary couldn’t flow if Patrick Maher didn’t function. Of late they don’t compile winning totals if Seamus Callanan isn’t scoring (and occasionally even when he is). In view of the latter’s truncated league campaign John McGrath may find more required of him here than is fair on the youngster just yet.
If Tipp are still bent on getting the sliotar forward early, moreover, Padraic Maher cannot indulge himself by dallying on it.
While the fact that both counties finished the league on the same day is a very small wisp in Cork’s favour, or at least not in their disfavour, should it come to a shootout there’ll only be one winner.
And that winner, although they’re perfectly capable of hitting 1-22 in such circumstances, will not be the team in red.
That said, Tipp look more vulnerable than they have for a couple of years at this stage of the season.
Pit them against one another three times this summer and Cork would surely win one of the three. But maybe not tomorrow. Tipp, barely.
Either way we’ll be talking about the pair of them tomorrow night. After all, there’s only one thing in the world worse than talking about Cork and Tipp...
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