For a season that has been shortened, the past seems a bit further behind us than usual. Our own relative outlook on the world is always warped by the events that transpire around us. Much has transpired since Cork hurling’s prolonged scourging at the pillar from Easter Sunday to Mayday. Things that would have seemed impossible at the time.
Two good days in Walsh Park and Thurles ensured that the dark spectre that haunted us prior to that was replaced by a giddy optimism that propagated endless possibilities. That’s the thing with the round robin, it gives you no time to really think things through. You’re up or you’re down, you’re out or you’re in as the whirlwind obliterates the middle ground and takes you on a journey to the extremities of your feelings.
In the eye of that whirlwind, somewhere between our first trip to Thurles and the pilgrimage to Waterford, it might have struck us that Cork just couldn’t possibly be as bad as they’d made themselves out to be. Subsequent events proved that flickering thought to be correct and now it’s time to find out how good Cork really are because if the Munster campaign is all about staying alive for as long as possible, the All-Ireland offensive is all about seeing how far you can go.
Now, on the eve of the only games the truly matter, how good are Cork? Well, at this point in time, we don’t really know. Extreme optimists will point to the Waterford and Tipperary games as undeniable proof that Cork are as good as anything else out there, with the obvious exception of Limerick, while those of a more naturally negative disposition will point to the paucity of the opposition in those two games and deduce that Cork’s progression was based far more on fortune than it was on fortitude.
Those rational thinkers out there will obviously fall somewhere in the middle of those extremes. Cork did a lot of things better, looked a lot more solid for the most part, and made the most of the moments of fortune that fell their way, as you should do. As much as anything, Cork have stumbled towards their best team, and I do think that it’s fair to say that happened as a result of accident rather than design.
Even though positions mean less than they ever did in hurling, positioning is still a vital element of the game. Over the years here on Leeside, we’ve had some famous examples of the importance of positioning. There was the inexplicable switch of John Fitzgibbon and Kevin Hennessey on the eve of the 1992 All-Ireland hurling final, the experiment with John Browne (an outstanding Cork servant) at centre-back in 2002 and the following year it took until the second half of the All-Ireland final to switch the roles of Tom Kenny and John Gardiner.
Ciarán Joyce’s switch to the centre has brought an end to another famous episode while Tim O’Mahony’s return to the other side of midfield has had the dual benefit of shoring up the defence and adding another dimension to Cork’s attack, if the ball is played in there at pace. Throw in the trust finally shown in Alan Connolly’s thrust and Cork look like a very different team.
The Cork sideline reacted because they had to, quickly. The four-week break has now afforded them a chance to dwell on things further. Whether this break, which has stalled some of Cork’s undoubted momentum, is a good or a bad thing will soon be revealed.
Because the game in Corrigan Park last Saturday didn’t reveal much. An improving Antrim gave it their best swing a mere week after ensuring their year will be recorded as one of remarkable success, while Cork did what they had to do. Had the margin of victory been greater, shoulders would have been shrugged, any less and eyebrows would have been raised. Such is life.
Which brings us to Galway, another inter-county team with what our friend, Seán Cavanagh (more on him next week), might refer to as ‘trust issues’. This will be Cork’s first championship encounter with the Tribesman since the retirement of the great Joe Canning. From the utter selfish perspective of a Cork hurling supporter, the genius from Portumna’s exit can only be welcomed.
Because, from the All-Ireland Club Final of 2006 against Newtownshandrum, to the All-Ireland minor semi-final of the same year and the championship encounters of 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2015, he had our number. The only exception to the rule was that great night in Thurles in 2008 when the game really was just the game for one glorious evening. Our own genius, Patrick Horgan, has outlasted him, and while his role from here to wherever we end up remains a conundrum, it remains vital.
Cork and Galway have so many things in common coming into the game on Saturday. They both have a wealth of underage talent that has yet to realise its potential, they are both more than capable of flattering to deceive, and a post-Leinster final Galway are in a similar corner to the one that Cork found themselves in after the May weekend.
But now the stakes are that bit higher as the rules of championship hurling more and more reflect the mantra of Jim Malone of the Chicago Police Department in Brian De Palma’s classic movie, The Untouchables:
“They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.”
The real meaning of ‘physicality’ and ‘intensity’ and ‘savagery’ continue to elude us, but there’ll be plenty of it on offer from now until mid-July. Were one to suggest that things may be on the verge of going a bit too far you might be accused of wanting to take the ‘manliness’ out of the game. However, there must be something amiss when one of the main arguments against any type of retrospective disciplinary action is that there would be nobody left to play the game were it applied consistently. Anyway, that argument is for another day.
As for Saturday, there would only be one question that Officer Malone would ask of Cork; “What are you prepared to do?”
Hopefully enough to keep us dreaming a little while longer.