What would you have taken as a good year for Cork hurling on New Year’s Day? Try and avoid relegation, pray for a decent show against Tipperary so as to have something to build on in the qualifiers with the hope of making it to the quarter-final stage. Maybe lady luck would shine on Cork then. Maybe, but not likely. The main thing would have been to finish the year with something to build on and to get a decent run from the minors and/or U-21s. That would have been my ideal year if I were asked. And I was probably asking for too much.
And yet here we are, Munster champions. Not by default, not by luck but because Cork proved themselves to be the best team and deserved it. It’s nigh on impossible to imagine or even believe the journey that this Cork team has brought us on so far this year. To date it has been a golden odyssey, like those of old. And everything about Sunday was just golden. The atmosphere, the support, the performances, the minors, the seniors, the memories, even the madness of it all.
One of the most satisfying things is how Cork have won three completely different types of games to get to this point. It was a shoot-out against Tipperary, a bit more attritional against Waterford while in the final, Cork out-thought as much as out-fought Clare. This was most evident in Cork’s puck-outs.
Everyone has been talking about them and maybe there was a slight fear as to what Cork would do if Anthony Nash was shut down. But he played it as he saw it, went long when it was on and when the space was shut down he just gave it to Colm Spillane and Damien Cahalane. They kept it simple too, going up the sideline and over the Clare half-back line all the time avoiding the crowded middle. Cool, calm, collected, and effective.
Over the past few years it had become too easy to play against Cork. Shut down Séamus Harnedy and the forwards would struggle, get your half-forward line moving and the Cork half-backs would follow. Not anymore. This is now a team that has taken responsibility and every player works for the guy next to him. Individual brilliance is not a fleeting moment but a means to make the team successful.
The team-work is incredible. In defence they tackle in numbers because they know there’s others behind them to come and help them out. They trust each other. In attack they give the ball to the man in the best position. Patrick Horgan is making as many scores as he is taking, as are the rest of them. The iconic moment from Sunday has to be Damien Cahalane’s lung busting sprint up the field in injury time and in many ways it embodies much of what Cork have become.
When he picked up the ball he had no real options ahead of him and he took the best one. While the run was inspirational, it was also necessary. And at the end of it he didn’t look for glory, he looked for the right option. Luke O’Farrell had made up fierce ground to support the run and in turn O’Farrell gave a simple pass to Patrick Horgan. Over she went and the lead was back to three. A fantastic team score that will live long in the memory.
Speaking of Cahalane, it’s time to give the full-back line its due. They were solid throughout and all of them won their individual battles. Colm Spillane kept Conor McGrath as quiet as anybody has, Steven McDonnell had his best game all year and Cahalane continues to grow and sums us as much as anybody the renaissance of this team.
Darragh Fitzgibbon and Mark Coleman continue to astound, Luke Meade and Shane Kingston popped up with vital scores, Bill Cooper is as honest a hurler as Cork have had in a long time, Mark Ellis and Christopher Joyce anchor the team well while Cadogan, Horgan, Lehane and Harnedy provide the magic and there’s a bit of depth to the panel now. Don’t worry, it’s ok to be positive this week!
There’s tremendous credit due to the management team. They’re all good Cork hurling men and we have to be grateful for how they’ve put the pride back in the Cork jersey, for re-discovering what Cork hurling is all about. They won’t be mulling over Sunday for too long, even though they are entitled to. For them it’s about the next day and Kieran Kingston remembers 2014 all too well.
As a victory, it feels very different to 2014. Then I got the feeling that Cork were punching above their weight, that there was a bit of luck involved. This time it feels as if there’s more to come, whenever that may be. There’s certainly more to be positive about with the minors really turning on the style. And there’s plenty to look forward to; Walsh Park, Croke Park, the Páirc.
Dare we dream the impossible dream? Perhaps, but there’s plenty of hurdles left to negotiate. As ever, the next game will be the biggest challenge. But for the time being lets just bask in the glow of Sunday and go watch them play with their clubs. Then just sit back and watch our potential semi-final opponents slug it out on the banks of our own lovely Lee.