Looking back, there was a sense of inevitability about Sunday’s loss to Kilkenny after about five minutes. Cork started reasonably well at the back and in the middle of the field, but the first three deliveries into the forward line came straight back out as quickly as they went in and thus the scene was set for the day.
It is, of course, impossible to make a score out of every delivery into the forward line, but the minimum requirement is that once the ball gets up there that it takes a while for it to get back out. That wasn’t the case for large swathes of the game, and that as much as anything else is what led to Cork’s first loss of the season.
There were mitigating circumstances of course, a low sun, a soft field, and, more so than anything else an imbalanced forward line due to an injury list that is on the verge of becoming critical now that the clocks have sprung forward. Still though, we’ve come to expect better over the spring and it was frustrating not to see the ball sticking the way it should. Then, when there was a chance of finally getting a score on the board, Tommy O’Connell, who has epitomised much of what has been good about Cork this season, tried to force a goal chance when a point may have been more beneficial, and on it went.
The concession of too many soft frees wasn’t helpful either, especially with a talent like Billy Drennan on the field. He never looked like missing. He never looked like straying either side of the black spot. He served as a reminder of the intrinsic importance of free-taking. It’s not even that you have to have a reliable one any more, you need one that’s flawless most days and as close to flawless as possible on an off-day. That is now the standard.
Just as scores can’t be manufactured from every attack, neither can you go through a game without conceding a free. Now, John Keenan did his very best to disprove this theory in last year’s Munster Final but the John Keenan that came to Nowlan Park on Sunday was a very different version of himself, probably chastened from his experimentation with total flow last June. However, many of the frees Cork conceded were cheap, in no way suggesting to a Kilkenny man that he should think twice about running up the middle again, especially with the wily old Richie Hogan dragging Ciarán Joyce out towards the wings. They were easy to give, easy to punish, and extremely detrimental to the cause.
The opening goal originated from another piece of sloppiness because Nowlan Park is not the type of venue where you get the opportunity to plant your feet in the middle of the field to take a shot from distance. From the avoidable block down came the inescapable punishment. Still though, Cork plugged away and trailed by that goal at the break.
Things didn’t really improve thereafter and then came the penalty and the bit of drama in front of the New Stand that means that Eoin Downey will more than likely miss the Waterford game down the Páirc at the end of April. Usually such dramatics are tiresome but on this occasion it was kind of nice to see Cork get a bit riled up. They did ok from there to the end, they endeavoured to find a way back but there wasn’t to be one, this time, and so there will be no League Final against Limerick on Easter Sunday, fortunately.
Cork have lost the last five National League Finals that they have reached and each one has left deep and different scars, some of which haven’t yet healed at all. Last year’s one was probably the most galling of the lot and while it ultimately didn’t de-rail the season entirely, it cast a long shadow over everything else that happened afterwards. Were Cork in the league decider, the pressure to win it would have been real. One would have to question after looking at Limerick’s second half performance against Tipperary on Saturday evening if that pressure would have done Cork any good at this moment in time.
Limerick might be caught by Kilkenny next time out, they might even be caught once in Munster, but they wont be caught thrice. They will be in the All-Ireland series, most likely as Munster champions. If the are to be beaten it will most likely be in an All-Ireland semi-final and it will be the type of shock result that will be the talk of the island for the week that follows. It will need to be something like what Donegal did to Dublin in 2014, or what Tadhgie Murphy did to Kerry in 1983 or what Galway did to Kilkenny in 2005 or indeed what Kilkenny did to Limerick in 2019. It’ll be a day when the perfect alchemy of hubris, gallantry and luck will allow David to slay Goliath. However, in the examples listed here the winner didn’t eventually take it all. It was Kerry, Dublin, Cork and Tipperary who stole those particular summers.
But there’s not much point in worrying about Limerick now. Pat Ryan has said all year that his focus is on the final day of April. Cork now have five weeks to prepare for that date with destiny. That five weeks will now take place far from the madding crowd, with a lot of the old doubts clear and present in the minds of Cork’s critics, as it seems that the league is only really the league for the Rebel County.
By the time we see Cork again, the Munster bear fight will be well underway. We’ll be watching and waiting and keeping an ear to the ground in relation to that accursed injury list. One would hope that Timmy O’Mahony’s impressive cameo against Kilkenny was a taste of what Cork will welcome back between now and then, and that it can be blended in with some of the undoubted new talent that we saw during the league.
In the interim, it’s time to focus on the next generations’ progress as we all continue to search for more signs that all of this pain will too pass, sometime.