If the great Kilkenny team of the recent past taught us anything, it was that every single game matters. League may only be league but in the Gospel according to Cody, a championship attitude was, is, essential for every single encounter. It took a long time for that penny to drop for the rest of the hurling world, but its legacy will be eternal.
Whatever training is going on, whatever is being worked on during the week, there are no excuses for not performing at the weekend. Whether that performance is good enough or not to get a win isn’t always the most important thing, but you should never be too far away.
Limerick have carried on that legacy over the past few years, especially before pause was pressed on our lives two years ago, but most other counties got the memo too. Cody has won ten league titles over the past twenty-odd years, Tipp won the league in 2008 and have lost five finals since then, Limerick won back-to-back titles in 2019 and 2020, Galway have won three since 2010 while Dublin, Waterford and Clare have all won a title each since 2010.
Cork have lost three finals since then, all of them terrible for very different reasons and they haven’t won a league title since 1998. There have been too many campaigns since then where the Cody mantra hasn’t been adopted for whatever reason. 2017 was a recent exception, last year looked like it was going to be another one until the last two games.
This year’s campaign only really started on Sunday and on the road up to Limerick we were all in full agreement in terms of what was required out of the day. Considering the nature of the two line-ups, Cork should be winning, but the nature of the performance would be far more important.
Great teams have always defended from the front but, again, it was Kilkenny who brought that to another level with their deep lying half-forward line and ferocious competitiveness that always left them on the edge and often well over it.
Again, it has been Limerick who raised that particular bar and in The Times on Sunday, Denis Walsh laid bare the biggest difference between Cork and Limerick last August. In the first half of that game Limerick made just under 60 tackles while Cork only made 22.
With that in mind, the nature of performance that we were looking for was based a hell of a lot more on dog than dazzle, while being well aware that the game was infinitely more important to Cork than it was for Limerick.
The Cork display in the first half was everything that you could have hoped for. There was aggression, pace, power, and a genuine desire to win every single ball. The Cork defence looked more compact than it has done in a long time with Ger Millerick excelling in supporting a half back line where Ciarán Joyce’s natural defensive tendencies are a most welcome addition. Dáire O’Leary will be the better for thirty-five minutes spent in the company of Séamus Flanagan while up front the appetite for the less glamorous side of the game was healthy.
When the ball went dead, Cork was better at getting organised quickly and shutting down the 40/50-yard puck-outs that Limerick excel at, though the absence of Nicky Quaid, and his side’s general lethargy, obviously helped in that particular department.
It left Cork in a most unexpected and commanding position at half-time. We waited to see what sort of a cavalry Limerick would send out after the break and what type of a charge they would muster.
The cavalry hailed from the stand was significant, as was the charge, but Cork never allowed it to manifest itself on the scoreboard. They matched them score for score when it mattered and did a lot of the things that were lacking in the Clare match to take the sting out of the game. Patrick Horgan ambled out for the frees, the bench was emptied and one of the most pleasing aspects of the game was Alan Connolly’s ability to make a nuisance of himself late on.
Of course, it was far from perfect. The nature of the goal that was conceded was extremely frustrating due to the fact it was entirely self-inflicted, the wides mounted up after the interval, and there were times where Cork didn’t have enough men forward and took that bit too much out of the ball. Obviously, Limerick’s general inertia also cast a long shadow over proceedings.
As for the aforementioned line that all great teams flirt with; Cork sailed closer to it than they had for a long, long time. We’ve often complained about referees, about bringing a knife to a gun fight and about not being able to compete adequately enough in the physical stakes. None of that applied to Sunday afternoon, but a dreary afternoon in February is a long way from where the action will really begin.
The Easter Sunday clash of Cork and Limerick will be an entirely different affair. In the interim, what Cork need to do is follow up Sunday’s performance with similar ones down the Páirc on Saturday night against Galway and in Wexford a fortnight later.