Deep inside of a parallel universe, three All-Ireland semi-finals in five years wouldn’t be bad work at all. In a few of of those universes, we would have even won both of them a couple of times. That’s the thing with famines; they have you grasping at every string available to try and lighten the crippling burden of disappointment that we have become all too accustomed to.
Speaking of famines, this is the sixteenth championship campaign of the current hunger. Were things to come right at the end of the month it would match our previous best, worst effort from 1903-1919. If we fall short, it means we’ll have finally entered terra incognita, a land we do not know or want to know.
However, it is a peculiar type of famine when you sit back and look at Cork’s ability to reach the last four. I analysed that in a bit more detail before the Limerick game in 2018 and, as we know all too well, nothing has changed since then.
Sunday will be the ninth All-Ireland semi-final that Cork have contested since we won the last of our All-Ireland titles in 2005. In the worst time of our existence, we’ve still been seventy minutes away from the Big Show more than once every second year.
However, our record in these games is abysmal. Two wins and, being truthful, it’s a bit unfair to lump the great win against Waterford in 2006 with the rest of them, particularly all of those post 2008.
To put all of that it in context, Cork won seven of the eight semi-finals that they played prior to 2006. The exception to the rule? Offaly in 2000.
However, it is slightly disingenuous to make that comparison as the past truly is a foreign country when it comes to inter-county hurling. The back-door era and the revolution of the mid 1990s has changed everything, utterly, forever.
Winning a provincial title doesn’t mean what it used to when it comes to winning All-Irelands. And that’s a trend that we’d all like to see continue this Sunday. After all, we’ve suffered from it enough.
Which brings us to our old friends from Kilkenny, the predatory cats draped in black and amber. This is a very different Kilkenny though, just as it was in 2019. Yes, it acts the same and it looks pretty much the same and it will bring more of the same to the table on Sunday, but it just can’t be what it was between 2006 and 2015. At least, not for another generation.
Kilkenny’s reputation often reminds me of something Frank Abagnale Senior said in Steven Spielberg’s classic movie, Catch Me If You Can. According to Frank, the great New York Yankees side of the 1960s, led by Micky Mantle kept winning because people couldn’t stop looking at their pinstripes.
That is not to say that Kilkenny are not a seriously good team blessed with outrageous talent. They are, and they always will be.
It just means that they are very beatable this weekend. Don’t get too excited about that though, so are Cork. So are everybody, bar Limerick, and they’re still beatable.
But, just like everything else, it’s a new world for this rivalry, a new canvas for players to paint their own portraits on, to sketch out their own glories, to right some old wrongs.
And Cork have been putting right a lot of those wrongs this year. Defensively speaking, Cork have been consistent across this championship so far, even in defeat against Limerick. The key to this has been getting their personnel and match ups right.
The exclusion of Niall O’Leary last winter made little sense at the time, makes even less sense now, and should he be out on Sunday it would be a major blow to our chances. It was while watching him in Thurles last Saturday evening I caught a glimpse of Cork’s greater attention to detail this summer.
O’Leary had been marking Cian Boland and in the sixty-third minute, Boland was replaced by Oisín O’Rourke. Straight away O’Leary and Seán O’Donoghue exchanged glances with one another and swapped men. It had obviously pre-ordained that O’Donoghue was to pick up O’Rourke when the time came.
A very small thing, but when you consider that Cork managed to leak twenty points to Westmeath two years ago while scoring 1-40, those small things count.
The defence, and indeed the defending of every single player, will need to be better again at the weekend to give Cork a decent platform from which to play from. From there, Cork’s forwards will need to sparkle both with and without the ball.
They’ve been improving little by little too. Séamus Harnedy has found his form, Patrick Horgan is bubbling away nicely, and Jack O’Connor has been exceptional. There’s no doubt that the rule change has helped him, as once he accelerates away from his man in and around the twenty-one, fouling is no longer an option.
But there is still the nagging feeling that there is potential for more from all of Cork’s forwards, and that potential needs to become a reality on Sunday for things to go Cork’s way.
Kilkenny will bring fire, brimstone, savagery, and all other types of competitiveness to the table. It speaks volumes for their reputation that we have to revert to barbarism just to try and understand it. They are coming, and hell is coming with them.
From a Cork perspective, 2019 should be fresh enough in the memory not to be overwhelmed by it when it does come.
Will a tired Cork succumb to a fresher Kilkenny? Or will Cork’s games against Clare and Dublin give them the edge that Kilkenny will be lacking after three weeks of lock down in Nolan Park?
That won’t be decided until after the game. The truth is, nobody knows how the teams will react, yet. Traditionally, Kilkenny have managed the break well while it didn’t seem to do Cork any favours in 2017 and 2018.
The last month has been a good one for Cork hurling, the best one in a long time. In a way, however, the delay of the U20 All-Ireland is no harm (the very best of wishes to all of those who contracted Covid).
It means there’s nothing else to focus on this weekend. There’s no point in looking down the road and being content with what’s coming because nothing is guaranteed. To win the All-Ireland this year, Cork need to win four games. Next year they’ll have to play four games without any guarantee that they will come out of Munster.
The best opportunity is always the current one. Cork have a serious one on Sunday. Let’s just hope that they can take it.