What a week it has been. Achieving the improbable by defeating Waterford in Walsh Park last Sunday was good enough, but the events that transpired in Ennis later on Sunday afternoon ensured that the day exceeded our wildest expectations.
Cork isn’t necessarily back (baby), but our fate is back in our own hands going into the final weekend of the Munster championship. Taking into consideration the incessant viciousness of the Munster championship, we’d have taken that the outset of the competition. When one considers the cataclysmic start to proceedings, it’s an opportunity we would have barely dared wish for.
What happened on Sunday? Did the Waterford juggernaut just run out of steam? Or did Cork just return to the form that we know that they are capable of?
As ever, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. There simply had to be a performance in Cork, and, truth be told, the smaller confines of Walsh Park probably suited a team who had been giving up big scores. As for Waterford, expectation can be a heavy burden and when the unexpected hits you in the gut, it can be nigh on impossible to stop its spread.
Possibly the biggest factor in Cork’s win was the way they never allowed the game to get away from them in the first half. Twice in that opening period Cork were creaking, and twice they found a way to turn it around. Playing with the wind, they trailed by 0-6 to 0-2 and we were a major away from the curtains being drawn on another year.
However, unlike in the Clare game, Cork found a way to stop the bleeding. Four didn’t become five as Patrick Horgan tapped over a handy free, Mark Coleman and Patrick Collins opened up their shoulders from distance before Darragh Fitzgibbon, Robbie O’Flynn and Alan Connolly combined to sow a seed of salvation.
They soon trailed by four again but were again able to turn it around coming up to the break as Fitzgibbon thundered into the game. From there, the momentum was with Cork and as they came out of their shells, Waterford retreated into theirs.
Momentum and confidence are curious things. Prior to the first goal Fitzgibbon looked tired and was gasping for air. By the end of the game, he was everywhere, winning breaks and dominating the middle.
A similar transformation came over Séamus Harnedy. In the opening twenty minutes he took a shoulder akin to the one Bill Cooper gave to Kevin Moran way back in 2017 and was almost strangled under a high ball by Tadhg de Búrca. When all was said and done, he had hit 0-5 and was the standout performer on the field.
Way back in the Limerick game, Kyle Hayes waltzed in from the South Stand unopposed to bury Limerick’s first goal. When Jack Fagan, after he had shown his class by saying ‘goodbye’ to Horgan, came in from the stand side on Sunday, Rob Downey went towards him and forced a decision. The ball went harmlessly wide.
All of the little things really do combine to amount to so much more, and the most telling statistic of the day was the 1-19 that Cork conceded, 0-8 of which came as Waterford played with the wind. Compare that to the 0-17 that was leaked in the opening half against Clare, and you get an idea of the transformation that happened before our eyes.
The biggest shock of the weekend, however, is the fact that Cork, long maligned as the softest team in hurling, are suddenly masters of the dark arts. Now they’re the ultimate agent provocateurs, shunting and dunting, mauling and hauling, living on the edge only for officials to ignore their blatant, premediated, and scurrilous efforts of having the temerity to try and stop the other team from playing.
Our old friend Brian Gavin, an eminent defender of the faith, even noted how a certain Cork player consistently sails too close to the wind. If only we’d known all along.
As already mentioned, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Cork is back. If we learned anything last week, it was that there is indeed many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip. Last Sunday’s performance won’t be enough this Sunday but it just gives Cork a chance to go again, and to build on last week.
Which brings us to our greatest foes, Tipperary. We’ve clashed twelve times in the championship since 2007 and Cork’s record over the past fifteen years makes for grim reading. There’s only been two wins, and both came out of the blue in 2010 and 2017. There was a draw in 2018 and all of the other nine have been won by Tipp, with the Covid clash of 2020 being the most galling defeat of all.
Throw in the back-to-back defeats in the All-Ireland U21 and U20 finals of 2018 and 2019 and there should be absolutely no risk of anybody involved in the Cork set-up thinking that Sunday’s game won’t be anything but another gruelling and exhausting test of their mettle. This may be the genesis of a new Tipp, but they showed unequivocally against Waterford and Limerick that the values that make them great are innate, and always will be.
Cork may be stumbling towards their best team with Ciarán Joyce anchoring the defence as only a natural can and Tim O’Mahony’s secondment to the defence surely at its end. But to have any chance over Tipp, Cork has to get it right from the start on Sunday. Anything else will lead to another disappointment.
Last weekend we were drinking, heavily, in the last chance saloon, free of any form of expectation. Now we’re back in control, and Cork must make the absolute most of the opportunity that has been afforded to them.