League is Championship

And here we go again. Another championship full of hopes and fears is laid out before us. It will be like nothing we have ever seen before. The last time Cork won the All-Ireland, in 2005, they played five games, the longest possible voyage that could be taken from Munster without losing a game .

Five straight wins this year means that you still need two more. Is there any team out there capable of winning seven on the spin, now that Kilkenny are at best, in decline and at worst, in flux?

Time, as always, will tell all.

We’ve all been brought up on the premise that knock-out championship is the be all and end all of our games. Yes, this has been diluted by back-doors and various other forms of tomfoolery, but there’s never been a change of this magnitude. Of course with Ireland being Ireland and the GAA being the GAA, league isn’t exactly championship either. We just have a championship-ey-type league.

Back-doors were introduced to give everyone a second chance but the reality of the situation is that they suit the best teams. You may catch them once, but seldom will it be done twice. So how will this new format suit Cork?

Well, thirteen years ago it would have been perfect. Cork were undoubtedly the best team in Munster. Waterford were sporadically brilliant yet unreliable. Tipp were in one of their post-All-Ireland comas that have haunted them since the 1960’s. Limerick were what they always have been; capable, with an innate ability to self-destruct. Clare? They were still capable of a decent kick. But just the one.

If this format existed back then you’d be fairly confident that Cork would be able to suffer a loss and still make second or third place without too much hassle. You probably wouldn’t be that confident now, in 2018.

And that’s nothing to do with Cork’s ability, it’s down to the competitiveness of Munster. It has always been a minefield, but has it ever been this explosive? As far as the luck of the draw goes, Cork have been, lucky. No trip to Cusack Park, no trip to Limerick and Waterford reverting to Thurles for their ‘home’ game.

Clare first up and at home isn’t so bad either. The 2013 All-Ireland replay aside, Cork have a very good record over Clare over the past few years. But Clare seem to be a bit better this year. Conor McGrath is as good as what’s out there, Colm Galvin is back to his best and Tony Kelly is capable of doing it on his own. That full-back line, however. Let’s see how that goes.

If Cork were to lose to Clare, well, well then things would become very, very tough very quickly. A trip to Tipp followed by a visit from a youthful Limerick team who could, realistically, be top of the table by that stage. And that could, conceivably, be that, before we ever even got a chance to get going. In the old system, if you lost in Munster you just re-grouped. This year, you just have to move on. Quickly.

Then there’s the injuries. Cork are already short Alan Cadogan for the weekend while Timmy O’Mahony’s injury has pulled the reigns in on the potential he showed during the league. The other league that is, the real one. Cadogan has been out for a while now too.

But Robbie O’Flynn and Seán O’Donoghue have been rewarded with starts that further freshen up the new fresh team we saw last year. Jack O’Connor, Jamie Coughlan and Shane Kingston provide serious pace from the bench while Eoin Cadogan and Lorcán McLoughlin provide experience. But who’s going to win the puck-outs? Will we ever answer that question?

What happens if Fitzgibbon or Coleman pick up injuries? Or Lehane or Horgan? Or if there’s a ‘Semple-Gate’-type schemozzle and Cooper, Harnedy and Nash get suspended?

And here lies the problem. There’s way to many ‘ifs’ to worry about. Every county is the same. They all have the same worries, the same fears and the same vulnerabilities to the unknown, they’re all subject to chance no matter how immaculate the preparation has been.

All of the other counties have their own pressure to deal with. Tipp had their legs taken from under them by their old nemesis in the League final and are in danger of being under achievers. Clare haven’t really progressed from their All-Ireland victory. Limerick find themselves in a place they’ve been before, oozing with potential on the back of consistent underage success. Will it be different this time? Waterford need to find something new.

So, we can happily revert to cliché and just take it one game at a time. Clare, down the Páirc on a Sunday in May. What doe history tell us? I’d say enjoy it, but it really is more a case of endurance when your emotionally involved. It does, however, promise to be a hell of a show.

Corcaigh Abú.

John Coleman

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