The weather has always had a unique place in the psyche of Cork hurling. Tradition has it that Cork is, much like a classic West Indian fast bowling attack, at its best when the sun is shining on their backs, and forwards. Cork’s pace, skill and artistry is designed for firm ground and expansive pitches where their relentlessness pounds teams into submission. There was the Munster Final of 1984, the All-Ireland finals of 1990 and 2005 and countless other great days that all combine to give our past its golden hue.
As for the rain? Well, tradition dictates that we don’t like it. The thunder and lightening final of 1939 on the day that war broke out in Europe is perhaps the most famous example but there are plenty of others, with Tipperary’s evisceration of Cork in Thurles in 2016 the most recent example of sodden disappointment.
Like all rules, however, there are glorious exceptions, two of which came back-to-back in 1999. There was the all-time classic semi-final against Offaly which showcased the best of skilful hurling in torrid conditions and then there was the final which was instantly forgettable as a spectacle but will forever rank amongst the greatest ever days to be a Cork supporter.
As I look out the window here on Friday evening, the glorious sunshine belies the weather forecasted for the rest of the weekend. There’s a storm rolling in from somewhere along the western seaboard, and it’s going to hit Páirc Uí Chaoimh at some stage on Sunday afternoon.
Our natural aversion to the weather may also explain our mediocre record in the league and it is here we must return to again in preparation for Sunday.
1998 has been in all of our thoughts over the past few weeks. A fortnight ago, we all flirted with the border between hope and expectation in the lead up to the league final. We seemed set for our first league title of the new millennium but ended up nursing another deep, psychological gash.
As we all know too well, the men of ’98 remain our last league winners, but they too were dealt a deep psychological gash five weeks after their win over Waterford. The feel-good factor around Cork hurling was amplified a fortnight after that league final when they registered their first proper championship win since 1992 over Limerick, in Limerick. The Gaelic Grounds had been a graveyard for Cork throughout the mid-nineties, as they exited the championship there in ’93, ’94, ’95 and ’97.
Clare had been responsible for three of those defeats and now it was to be Clare again in ’98. But this time it was in Thurles. And if the Gaelic Grounds is to Cork what Kryptonite is to Superman, then Thurles is to Cork what Jerusalem is to monotheism. We’d already shown in the league semi-final that Clare could be beaten and now, it was time to be…
Well and truly rope-a-doped.
As regaled by Denis Walsh in Hurling: The Revolution Years, it was Dr Con who saw it first, before a retaliatory punch had been even thrown. He famously quipped to Jimmy Barry Murphy ‘that we were in trouble here’ when he saw Anthony Daly channeling his inner Atilla the Hun – in what was possibly the genesis of that old chestnut, savagery – as he and his comrades rampaged onto Tom Semple’s field like men who, to put it mildly, meant business. We all know what happened thereafter.
As we prepare for the arrival of Limerick, I can’t be the only person of a certain vintage that is being haunted by that particular memory. It’s not that anybody with even a modicum of hurling knowledge would read anything into the league encounter back in February.
It was and is blindingly obvious that the league was a mere distraction for our neighbours to the north-west, from their first puck to their last. We know that it wasn’t the real Limerick, and because of that there’s an innate fear of what Limerick will come to town on Sunday. Everyone expects it to be an Old Testament like Treaty, full of fire, brimstone, fury and wrath.
Gearóid Hegarty confirmed as much when he told us that championship is a straight up option between killing or being killed and, knowing on what side of that particular line that he resides, it’s fair to look forward to Sunday with a healthy mix of trepidation and dread interspersed with the odd sprinkle of hope for redemption.
The memory of last August is much more pertinent than those of February and nothing has really changed in terms of what’s required. Cork, and everybody else, need to find a way to limit Cian Lynch, slow down Nicky Quaid’s re-starts, frustrate Hegarty, Tom Morrissey and Aaron Gillane and to, somehow, drag the Limerick half back line out of position. And that’s just for starters.
As for Cork, they need to find a way to force their will on the game to give them the optimum chance of utilising their strengths, their pace up front in particular. To do so, the starting forwards will need to throw themselves into their defensive duties with total commitment. As for who those six will be, we don’t know, yet.
If the chosen few do what they’re supposed to, who knows what where it will bring them?
Roll on Sunday.