The End of the Beginning

And here we go again. Another relegation playoff, the third since 2010. Of course, there’s also been three finals since then. All lost. We lost the last final we made before that too, in 2002, with our socks down. Have things ever really been the same since then? Stop. Move on.

The relegation play-off record is better, if that isn’t a paradox, won one, lost one. There was another flirtation with relegation in 2009 too, but Clare didn’t manage to win a game at all, and so we were safe.

In general, Cork’s record in the league is similar to their record in the championship since the 1980’s. Not good enough, with the odd win papering over the cracks. That is if you’re happy for Cork to have sporadic wins. It’s just the two a decade since the ’80’s. Although, you’d take two for this decade now, wouldn’t you? It’s All-Irelands we’re on about.

The last win, last League win, in 1998 was glorious. A scorching hot day in Thurles. I was in the Venturers and my father and sister collected me in Kilcully to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. I was then cursed for enforcing such a detour as we met the first traffic-jam in Fermoy.

It was the same in Mitchelstown and eventually impatience got the better of my father and we went on an adventure. There was the turn off in New Inn for Rosegreen and then the back road into Cashel and on to Thurles. Holycross or Ballycahill? I can’t remember. I miss those journeys.

We parked in the mart and sweated our way up to take our seats. We were in plenty of time, of course, but there was an edge to the day. You could feel that we were on the verge of something.

I wore an Ajax jersey because I was a silly teenager who thought that doing something like that would make me look infinitely more at ease myself than I actually was. From the lower reaches of the Old Stand – that’s actually the New Stand – I remember Seánie Farrell more than anything else. And JBM.

Waterford were still only Waterford then, and although Clare steamrolled Cork when summer came, better things were to come. Though we still nearly blew that. Remember those socks? Stop. Move on.

That was Cork’s 14th National Hurling League title. We were then two behind Tipp but five ahead of Kilkenny on the roll of honour. We’re now five behind Tipp and three behind Kilkenny. They’ve won eight since 1998. Galway have four and Tipp have three.

Waterford are no longer only Waterford and they’ve won two, Clare have one and even Dublin have managed one. Wexford and Limerick are worse off than us, but that might change this year. But still, it often feels as if we’ve been passed out, as if we’ve stood still.

We are where we are, however, in another relegation playoff. The loss to Clare in this game in 2013 felt terminal. There were only two points in it in the end but Clare over-ran Cork in extra-time and showed a penchant for hitting wides that they still haven’t shaken.

That feeling, however, was wrong. They came good in the summer, Dave Matthews timed the run to perfection and if it weren’t for Brian Gavin’s timekeeping….Stop. Move on.

In 2016 the win against Galway, in Galway, went completely against everything that had came before. It gave a false hope that was quenched without mercy before the summer had even started.

A win would be great on Sunday, but a loss wouldn’t be the end of the world either. What will be most important is how Cork approach the game. It’s clear that Waterford aren’t going to change too much. They’ll use the same system that first caught us out in the League final of 2015.

What will Cork do? Play it slow? Launch it down on top of Tadhg de Búrca? Let themselves be intimidated by Waterford’s aggression? Let themselves be opened up through the middle? You’d think not, but it is exactly what happened down the Páirc a couple of weeks ago, after the sending off.

Cork just need to do what they’re good at. Move the ball at pace, keep it open and try, as much as possible, to give the forwards decent ball. But the forwards also need to start making more of the bad balls that come in too. And they need to make sure that it doesn’t come out as easy as it has been. That doesn’t mean fouling. It all contributes to giving away 50 scoring chances.

So it’s back to Páirc Ui Rinn, thankfully, for a real test in a game of real meaning. Time to see where we’re really at, at this stage. A win would give Cork a bit of space and some quiet time to gear up for May. A chance to stop. And move on.

John Coleman

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