To date, Cork have got everything that they would have wanted out of the league. There’s been a consistency in their performances, a clear attempt to address the team’s weaknesses, while an infusion of new blood has added plenty of talent, energy and depth to the panel.
The defeat in Wexford Park last Sunday was the only blot on the copybook, but when one considers the meaninglessness of the game along with the rotation of the squad it all amounted to a loss not worthy of much introspection.
As I’ve written ad nauseum, the paucity of Cork’s record over the past seventeen years indicates that we cannot be snobby in terms of our priorities. When you haven’t won a national senior title in that amount of time, any type of success should be pursued without hesitation. When one of your age-old rivals, a rival that has dominated you in your times of distress, is coming into your back garden to play a national semi-final, that aforementioned pursuit should become a mission.
And yet, the threat of Limerick looms ominously over everything that Cork does at the moment, and as they retreat into the shadows to prepare for a resurrection in their fortunes on Easter Sunday, Cork find themselves very much in the limelight, forced to maintain their pace to safeguard their place in the pack.
The powers-that-be have reduced the league to a neutral zone that means everything and nothing. It doesn’t offer a hint of jeopardy to the powerhouses of hurling and the final is too close to the start of what has become the real league, the provincial championships.
Obviously, tomorrow night is a massive game for Cork and were they to win, which they kind of have to, really, it would mean that the league final would take place just two weeks before Easter Sunday. For Kilkenny, it’s a slightly easier, as their opening two games of the Leinster Championship are against Westmeath and Laois.
It’s hard to ascertain what’s best for Cork. We’re always told that games are the best type of training, particularly games with edge, and that winning is a habit. However, the aura that surrounds Limerick at the moment makes it feel that they’re currently concocting a grievous plan that might take more than two weeks to recover from.
What’s the best course of action? Well, nobody knows. The events that transpire over the next few weeks will be the judge of that. There’s no point in thinking too much about it as, to paraphrase the great Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, life must be lived forwards but can only be understood backwards.
It really is a time for taking every game as it comes. Saturday night promises to be a fabulous occasion in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, the type of evening that the new stadium was made for. There will be 20,000 souls gathering in the cathedral, under the lights to watch two old lions go at each other like they always have.
Well, kind of like they always have. Both teams will be totally committed to their respective processes. There’ll be playing through the lines, zonal defence, and a commitment to shape will trump individual duels. There’ll be roaming centre forwards, holding centre-backs and two men full-forward lines waiting patiently for the right ball. There’ll be short puck-outs, one-twos, and plenty of scores from numbers five to nine.
Much like Cork, Kilkenny are changed utterly. In last year’s All-Ireland semi-final they played their best hurling in the first-half when they moved the ball with purpose and hit the corners where Billy Ryan and Eoin Cody made plenty of hay. In the second half though, they went more direct, and Cork were able to deal with it, for the most part. This year, however, they seem to have at least more trust, if not quite total faith, in a more structured game while maintaining all of their core attributes that make them who they are.
The Cork selection is further proof of the gradual transformation of the Cork panel as the old have been gradually replaced by the new, with a few honourable exceptions. If we can agree that 2017 was year zero for this epoch of Cork hurling, it means that there are only eight survivors from the team that started the loss to Waterford in the All-Ireland semi final togging out tomorrow night.
The successive successful underage teams that we have produced over the past eight years have embedded themselves in the panel, now we must wait to see how far they can go.
The ticket sales for this game are further proof of the grá, passion and desperation that exists within us all for hurling in Cork. The days for longing for success are long past, now we need it. Or as my old friend Kierkegaard said:
“The highest and most beautiful things in life are not to be heard about, nor read about, nor seen but, if one will, are to be lived.”