By Denis Hurley
SURELY it won’t be as bad as last year?
The league had not gone well for Cork in 2016, and perhaps in hindsight, winning the relegation play-off against Galway had papered over more than a few cracks that needed to be exposed.
In Thurles against Tipperary on May 22nd, those shortcomings were laid bare as Cork were flattered by a 0-22 to 0-13 defeat. That Tipp would go on to be convincing All-Ireland champions was of little or no consolation, and nor should it have been.
A scraped win over 14-man Dublin before a first championship defeat to Wexford in 50 years confirmed that the line on the graph was pointing downward.
At the Cork County Board meeting two nights after the Tipp game, board coaching officer Kevin O’Donovan from Kilmeen didn’t mince his words.
‘It’s something I have asked myself ever since we were well beaten by Kilkenny in the 2010 All-Ireland semi-final, is Cork hurling in crisis?’ he said.
‘I didn’t think it at the time, but, walking through the square in Thurles on Sunday, seeing the supporters with their tails between their legs, I realised that yes, it is.
‘There was no anger, nobody giving out about the referee or anything, I only heard apathy, people saying that’d need never support Cork hurling again, that it’s finished.’
From the moment Cork walked, rather than ran, onto the field, it was a day to forget – not that the failure to sprint mindlessly from the tunnel was the reason for the defeat.
It was a team in the middle of a transition, but that too was just a symptom rather than disease. Failure to properly execute a sweeper system wasn’t something which was unavoidable, nor was allowing Pádraic Maher the freedom of Thurles to send in inviting balls to Séamus Callanan, who was in unplayable form. Damien Cahalane struggled to contain him, but anybody would have, hence the need to cut off the supply.
At 0-16 to 0-10 down with more than 20 minutes to play, Cork were awarded a 20m free but, rather than take the point to continue to eat into the deficit, Patrick Horgan went for goal and his shot was easily blocked. By the time Cork did get their 11th point, Tipp had added four more of their own and the game was long gone.
That was 2016 – what will 2017 bring? With a sense of dramatic timing, the championship draw pitted the Munster old firm together again, on the same weekend as a year before. The perfect parameters in which to illustrate how things have changed?
If we are to take the league at face value, the signs are more encouraging. Cork finished second of six teams and beat Clare, Waterford and Tipperary. Against that is the fact that Dublin were allowed to win in Páirc Uí Rinn and then an opportunity to reach the semi-finals was missed as Limerick, third in Division 1B, also triumphed at the Boreenmanna Road venue.
The overall picture is of general improvement, but with a lack of the consistency demanded of the very top teams. Newcestown’s Luke Meade and Mark Coleman of Blarney have emerged during the league as pretty much nailed-on starters, while Bandon’s Mike Cahalane looks set to be a valuable option off the bench, along with Darragh Fitzgibbon of Charleville.
As positive as that is, the quartet – if selected – will be making their championship debuts on Sunday, in the backyard of the All-Ireland champions. Even with question-marks attached to the fitness of Callanan, Tipp are a serious side. That they come in off the back of a league final defeat to Galway isn’t great for Cork either, as it will have been the perfect wake-up call for Michael Ryan’s side.
It may seem like surrender talk, but Cork probably won’t win on Sunday. A few years behind Tipp in their development, Kieran Kingston’s team will need everything to go right for them and hope that the Premier County have a collective off-day. Can that happen? Of course, but it’s unlikely.
What every Cork fan wants to see, and what is demanded as a minimum, is a performance, for it to be put up to Tipp, that a win for the hosts has to be earned.
If that transpires, defeat need not be a cause for more navel-gazing and ‘Where now for Cork hurling?’ but instead a springboard for a sustained qualifier run.
They’ve had a year to suffer – now is the time to show that the rebuilding process is on track.