What a difference a year makes. This Sunday, a year to the date of last year’s tame exit at the hands of Wexford, Cork find themselves heading into a Munster Final on the crest of a wave nobody would have thought possible twelve months ago. Or two months ago.
For many walking out of Thurles on that dark day, Cork hurling must have seemed set for an even longer jaunt than expected in the hurling wilderness. Throw in the continued struggles at minor and U-21 level and the defeat even had a cataclysmic feeling to it. We seemed light years behind in terms of hurling, thinking and, God forbid, cuteness.
Any Cork person who watched the excellent ‘An Fhuil agus an Bindealán’ over Christmas would have been left with very mixed feelings. A deep pride and longing for the past offset by a sense of panic and frustration with the present and future. As much as anything there seemed to be an identity crisis in Cork hurling.
And listening to Kieran Kingston in particular over the past few weeks, that’s the thing that stands out the most. Cork seem to have an identity again. It’s not that he’s saying anything revolutionary or original, but it’s all just so grounded. He has spoken about how the jersey is only there to be passed on, about how he’s thinking about handing the team over in a better place and what a privilege it is to be involved with the Cork senior hurlers. He sees the bigger picture.
This sense of humility can be seen in the way that Cork have hurled this summer so far. Necessities such as work rate, passion, toughness and discipline are there to be seen in everything that Cork do, in every corner of the field. These are simple things, but they are the most important things and they are things that have only been seen sporadically in recent years. Once they’re there you’ve a chance, without them you’re on a hiding to nothing.
These are also things that supporters buy into. People are only bursting for something to support and there’s a deep longing there for Cork to be competitive and successful. It does mean an awful lot. The reaction to the victories against Tipperary and Waterford are a testament to that and it’s hard to gauge the impact that those type of days will have on younger people. There’s a generation of young people in Cork who don’t expect Cork to be successful, who aren’t used to it.
All of this helps to explain Monday night. The crowd at the minor replay against Tipperary was something I don’t ever remember seeing. There was a good Cork crowd in Thurles for the drawn game but Monday night was something else entirely. And they got to see a really good Cork team (and a really good Tipp team).
The run that the senior team is on has helped the minor team too. There has been incredible pressure on Cork underage teams for the last few years as people have desperately sought for something to cling on to. It’s obviously unfair to put such pressure on young players, but it’s also human. It’s fantastic and important that they get their day in the sun this weekend. Monday gave them a taste of what to expect and Sunday is just a day that Cork GAA badly, badly needed.
Clare are a different proposition to both Tipp and Waterford. Pace was an advantage that Cork had over Tipperary and it was an advantage that they drove home. Clare have plenty of pace. Waterford don’t really have a marquee forward that would keep you awake at night but Clare have plenty who can hurt you, as we know all to well. Tony Kelly, Shane O’Donnell and Conor McGrath.
Over the past 11 years Cork have lost two All-Ireland finals, two Munster Hurling finals and three National League finals. All we’ve won is two Munster titles. It’s a cycle that needs to be broken. The quarter-finals are best avoided while a provincial crown opens up endless possibilities.
The pessimist in me thinks that Clare might owe us one and is very worried about Colm Galvin and the Clare forward line. The optimist in me sees how Clare were beaten in 2015 even when Cork were at a low ebb and that Cork also have plenty of forwards to worry Clare. As much as anything else, it’s just great to have that nervous feeling back in the belly. It’s been too long.
There’s been a lot of talk about ‘Corkness’ since the Tipp game and what exactly it is. Is it the swagger? The sense of self-assurance? The style of play? The flair? Nobody knows, it’s something that’s attributed as opposed to earned. But it always comes back to the basics. The basics are fundamental to everything, even ‘Corkness’. Attitude. Belief. Work-rate. You’ll always be there or thereabouts when those type of things are present. Bring them on Sunday and Cork will be there or thereabouts again.