Sunday was a strange day. After the intensity of the Kilkenny game it was like watching a different sport and, yet again, a different team. Cork weren’t at the races at all. They looked tired, listless, frustrated, beaten. Almost everything that made them look good last week was absent in Thurles. In the end they were flattered by the twelve-point defeat. There was a much bigger gap between the teams than that, and it was only because Cork managed to answer Tipp’s goals immediately with goals of their own that prevented this from being a total annihilation. It was a long seventy minutes.
There was a lot of head-scratching as we headed towards the dog track afterwards. My brother managed to sum up what we were all thinking when he declared that Cork simply ‘cannot be that bad.’ You’d have to think, or at least desperately hope, that he’s right. There’s no doubt that we’re a long way from what we once were, that we’re a long way from being genuine contenders, that we lack a lot of things (enough ball winning forwards, for example), but we can’t be that bad.
I thought that Cork needed to back up the Kilkenny performance with more of the same against Tipp. It seems the management thought differently and looking at the bigger picture, maybe they’re right. Pat Hartnett said afterwards that they trained hard during the week and you could see this in the players’ performances. Luke O’Farrell and Conor O’Sullivan were the only Cork players who didn’t seem to be leaden-footed. Even the normally energetic Bill Cooper was puffing after twenty minutes. Stephen McDonnell only seemed to wake up when he saw Seamus Callanan.
It was the arrival of Callanan that helped me to put a lid on the gut-wrenching disappointment. It made me question how many of the Cork players on display would be back on May 22nd. Nine or ten maybe. Of course Tipp have players to come back too and the thought of the Bonnar Maher attacking the middle of the Cork defence that has been on display during the league was genuinely frightening. We need to find someone to match Michael Breen at midfield too. He was excellent and is only going to get better. In the end this game was more important to Tipp than it was to Cork and once they found their groove after half-time it was curtains.
There was a lot of talk before the game about Cork finding some level of consistency, however, the only consistency that this league campaign has brought is comprehensive defeat. The concession of 9-118 in just five games is astonishing. And it could have been more. Whatever Cork are doing, they’re certainly not building from the back. Only the 2-22 scored against Kilkenny could be considered enough to give yourself a chance of winning a match. Yet, we’re still not relegated. Not yet anyway.
So the league will end where it started, with a trip to Galway. Cork shouldn’t have this chance really, but they do. They have the advantage of going into it with zero expectations. All the evidence points to a reasonably comfortable Galway victory. However, after the removal of Anthony Cunningham there’s genuine pressure on the Galway players. A post-coup relegation could set things off there again. March is much too early for terminal despair. Another non-performance and April mightn’t be. Are we really this bad or is there a rope-a-dope of Zairean proportions being planned? This time, the season really starts in Galway.