For obvious reasons, this season is very different than anything we’ve ever seen before. The changes in the Munster and Leinster championships has every county scratching their heads, trying to figure out the best way to approach what they always seem to have wanted; more competitive games. The obvious thing seems to be to try and road test as many new players as you can during the league and see if they can survive – or not – at this level.
The very real threat of championship relegation, particularly in Leinster, means that counties like Wexford simply cannot afford to be at anything other than full throttle from the start, as Cork found out in Wexford Park.
This means that, at the moment, it’s very hard to really judge anything with any sense of certainty. Not that you ever can, obviously, but it is now harder than ever to do so. However, there’s no denying that there was a certain sense of despair at half-time in Ennis last Sunday. Eleven points down, away from home and second best pretty much everywhere. It was a throwback to 2016.
The start wasn’t too bad, and when Patrick Horgan lined up a free to level it up after around fifteen minutes you thought that Cork might have been beginning to settle a bit. But then the tell-tale signs of the opening exchanges were even more visible as Clare streaked ahead. Cork were just off the pace in every way; touch, aggression, work-rate.
Still, had Séamus Harnedy stuck his goal chance it might have been a manageable margin. But the mood at half-time was, to put it lightly, gloomy. Afterwards, the sages on Radio 1 hailed Clare’s new direct approach but it wasn’t that at all. It was in the middle third where the difference was at its most apparent. Clare took advantage of the wind and did most of their damage from distance, utilising support runners excellently, and Cork’s inside defensive line actually looked fairly comfortable.
In 2016 these type of first halves were followed by even more demoralising second periods. Like in Salthill, Croke Park and Thurles. Not so on this occasion, thankfully. The second half was infinitely better. There was more drive, aggression and sharpness.
But all that comes with the caveat of whether Clare were easing off or not. Given their descent into time-wasting and tactical fouling early in the second half, you’d hope they weren’t but again, it is impossible to tell.
The thing that really struck me during the day, and on the walk back to the car in particular, was what a game changer the new format is.
My first visit to Ennis was for Cork v Clare in the 1993 Munster football championship. Clare were Munster champions but Colin Corkery announced his arrival on the scene in style, plundering 2-7 as Billy Morgan’s second Cork team began to take shape.
I still remember the crowd, the oppressive atmosphere and the claustrophobic feeling of being crammed in under the roofed terrace. The place hasn’t changed much, if at all, in the interim, as Kieran Shannon pointed out during the week. But very soon it will be hosting big championship games again, and it will create a feral, intimidating atmosphere when needs must. Soon, for the first time ever, league will be championship.
The post-mortem on the way home was stricken with references to the new format and how we just don’t know where everyone is at. But we had to admit that Clare did look further down whatever road they’re on.
The half-time gloom had lifted somewhat after the second half and we found further comfort when we looked at Cork’s missing list (Cadogan, Lehane, Fitzgibbon, Coleman and Cahalane) but Clare could also point to Conor McGrath. Who will make the difference when Cork and Clare’s roads meet again in May?
Such was the nature of 2016 that last year you looked for everything and anything to hold on to during the league. The performances were more important than the results in lots of ways. This year, we might be guilty of dismissing the league a bit, of taking the good times of last year as the standard. Things seem to be a bit more relaxed.
Yet, we’re in pretty much the same place as we were this time last year as we head into round 4 this weekend. A win in the opening round followed by two disappointing defeats. Last year there was a pleasant surprise in Walsh Park in round 4.
It’s Waterford again now. A win probably wouldn’t be a pleasant surprise on this occasion and there’ll be plenty who’ll expect it. However, after the first-half in Ennis, maybe the performance is the most important thing to keep an eye on, and if we get that everything else should look after itself.