Sunday was the perfect way to finish off the group stage of the league. A win, in a tight game, against Tipperary, at a sun-drenched Páirc Uí Rinn, a big Cork crowd, plenty of visitors too and a very enjoyable game of hurling. There was no need to be worrying about what had happened elsewhere either, everybody could just enjoy the victory for what it was and go home happy.
Cork’s win was well deserved and, probably, should have been more comfortable. They played well with the assistance of the wind in the first half and were well worth their double-score lead as half-time approached.
The highlight of the league has been the attitude and performance of the new players. They’ve all had their highlights; Shane Kingston against Clare, Luke Meade against Waterford and Mark Coleman in patches of every game. But on Sunday it was Darragh Fitzgibbon’s turn. He took advantage of Conor Lehane’s misfortune and really showed what he can do. Throw in Colm Spillane’s continued consistency and Michael Cahalane’s cameos and the league has unearthed players who will, at a minimum, get more chances to improve.
The best part of the performance on Sunday was Cork’s ability to respond to set backs, even if those set-backs were self-inflicted at times. Séamus Callanan and John McGrath struck for two soft goals to put a serious dent in the lead coming up to the break but on both occasions Cork got the next score and went on to extend their lead by three points directly after half-time.
When Tipp, now with the wind, gained the upper hand in the middle of the second-half and went two up, however, things were beginning to look bleak. But again Cork responded and reeled off five points to regain the lead. Another Tipp goal erased that lead, another point from Cork in response. Then, at the death, Ronan Maher’s majestic line-ball looked to have made a draw of it. But back came Cork again through Patrick Horgan to get the win. This type of resilience has been absent for too long but its recent emergence is most welcome.
Confidence is another thing that Cork hurling has been lacking for a while now. At times it can be seen in the performances of the more established players in particular. Patrick Horgan was a case in point on Sunday. He wasn’t in the game at all really in the first half but then, 25 minutes in, an easy opportunity from play presented itself. Over it went and he was in the game. He grew with each score he got after that and it was great to see him approaching full-flow again.
Obviously, there’s nothing better for confidence than winning matches, tight matches in particular and the experience will do Cork good. However, everything that happened on Sunday has to be looked at with the caveat that this wasn’t Tipp at anywhere near full pelt. With the game in the melting pot, the arrival of Noel McGrath offered everybody a gentle reminder of that important fact. The pitch of the game may have risen a notch, but summer is still a bit off yet. The ease with which he plundered two, beautiful long-range points ensured that nobody would be using this game as a definitive point of reference in the run up to the far more important meeting in May.
But no matter, it was still an important game to win. And a lot of the time in these games it’s the small things that provoke the biggest smile. In the last quarter of the game Bill Cooper, who again performed excellently, was hit with a big shoulder from James Barry (I think it was Barry, RTE’s pitiful highlights didn’t allow me a chance to confirm). As you’d expect Cooper jumped straight back up. But moments later Séamus Harnedy responded in kind with a big hit of his own. It was brilliant and had the added benefit of bringing the crowd more into the game. Again, it’s something we haven’t seen enough of in recent times.
This time last year Cork were in a horrible position. No wins from five attempts and heavy defeats at the hands of Dublin, Tipperary and Galway. Even though they managed to stay up it can’t have been an enjoyable time for anybody involved, no more so than it was an excruciating experience to be watching on. It felt directionless, as if we were all just going through the motions.
That’s certainly not the case this year. There’s a bit more spirit there, there’s a bit more structure there, there’s a few more options there and there’s a bit more physicality there. They’re by no means ‘there’ yet however, but it just feels good to have the Limerick game at the weekend to look forward to. The revolution is by no means here yet, but there might be the beginnings of something in the air, and, truth be told, we have got to get it together, sometime.