The change in championship structure that came in 2018 has completely transformed the hurling landscape for a multitude of reasons. Before its inception, for example, no one of my vintage would have ever seen Cork and Waterford clash in championship hurling in any other theatres other than Tom Semple’s Field in Thurles and GAA headquarters in Croke Park. Nor did anybody really imagine that that certainty might change, unless Walsh park were to undergo a major refurbishment.
Still, with the way things transpired between global pandemics and stadium constraints, Cork have only had to travel to Walsh Park once since the genesis of this novel new hurling world. Last year’s game against the Déise was both Cork’s first championship visit and first championship win there since 1975 and, at the time, it felt like Cork had turned a corner. Of course, Cork have turned many corners over the past twenty years. However, such is the extent of our pivoting that we find ourselves trapped in a purgatorial vicious circle from which escape, at times, feels and seems impossible.
The biggest victim of the new format has undoubtedly been the league. One of only two national titles on offer in our national game, the league has always been the runt of a small litter with teams almost embarrassed to admit that they had any interest whatsoever in trying to win it. As ever, Brian Cody was an exception to that rule, but that was more of a result of what could be euphemistically described as his competitive streak as opposed to any great enduring grá for the competition. Before the advent of the provincial round robin, the league was like a relative you reluctantly acknowledged without ever going out of your way to visit. Now, it gets the silent treatment. Not even a card at Christmas, a handshake at a funeral, and yet there it sits, unbowed and unashamed.
The result of this is that we know even less than usual about everything as we await Cork’s arrival into this year’s Munster championship on Sunday afternoon. If one were to graph their progress through the league, Cork’s line of form would have descended from start to finish. A fun win against Limerick was followed by a good day in Galway but what happened from there was largely underwhelming.
That sense of being underwhelmed can be easily explained away, and it’s that very simple explanation that is the main source of trepidation going into the weekend, namely, injuries. The leak sprang before a ball had been pucked with the news about Mark Coleman and from there the list just grew, expanded, mushroomed. There were Robbie O’Flynn and Seán O’Donoghue against Limerick while Darragh Fitzgibbon, Tim O’Mahony, Alan Connolly and Seamus Harnedy already had watching briefs. Conor O’Callaghan came in and did well before being cut down by another one while Patrick Horgan spent some time in a boot.
Harnedy came back to win the game against Wexford and looked remarkably good in Ennis before his hamstring bothered him again and Declan Dalton soon took a seat next to him after feeling a twinge. Shane Kingston pulled up in the Munster League game against Kerry and then came back but a shadow also hangs over his involvement at the weekend. After a few years of impressive club form, Cathal Cormack got the call up he deserved but all he has to show for it is an impressive outing in Ennis before he also succumbed to a knock.
That summary is far from exhaustive, but it does give a taste of the trials and tribulations that Pat Ryan has faced over the past few months. The why of why there has been so many is hard to ascertain. Tougher training, players being pushed more, over training; who knows? Ultimately, time will tell, as it always does.
Now, it seems to have contracted bar the official word on Cormack and O’Callaghan and the long term nature of Coleman and Connolly’s ailments, though the absence of Séan O’Donoghue from the match day twenty-six boggles the mind, especially when we remember him walking off the field at the start of February while Robbie O’Flynn headed for the ambulance.
Whatever the state of the nation, it’s more than fair to be concerned about the actual state of readiness of the Cork panel for the legendary white heat of the Munster championship. Plenty of players were blooded as winter gave way to spring and plenty of players have made it back form injury, but how many are ready?
In the round, Cork coped as well as could have been expected during the league. Nowlan Park was the only real exception, but when one looks at the criticism that followed that performance it seemed like the league was really only the league for everyone else. If Cork had succumbed to Limerick in the way that Kilkenny did afterwards, for example, you can be sure that the vitriol would have been that bit more caustic.
Of course Kilkenny have a bit more credit in the bank, and even if a lot of that credit has been deposited a long time ago those stripes still carry plenty of menace. As for the blood and bandage? Well, that’s in dire need of some real rejuvenation.
It all means that Sunday is very much a shot in the dark as far as Cork are concerned. It’s hard to imagine that Cork will line out as selected, positionally speaking, even if it is easy to imagine them finishing with a stronger team with players like O’Flynn, Kingston and O’Mahony all named on the bench. That could even be a blueprint for the weeks ahead; Cork improving as players return to full fitness, but the obvious caveat to that is the danger of said improvement coming too late for it to matter.
You could see Rob Downey moving to wing back, Ger Millerick picking up whoever drifts out from the Waterford full forward line leaving Damien Cahalane and Niall O’Leary to pick up Mikey Kiley and Dessie Hutchinson respectively. One would assume that Austin Gleeson will start, but one can’t assume that Waterford will mirror what they did last weekend. And in reality, one can’t spend too much time thinking about it, in public anyway, because between the that and the this, the these and the those, no one really knows.
However, what we do know is this. In three years of the round robin, Cork have managed to fight their way out of Munster without fail. The only other county to match this record is Limerick. The only team to yet emerge from the bear pit is Waterford. Three years isn’t long enough to identify any real, long lasting trends but there are a few things that we can be certain of, namely that someday Cork’s season will end with the round robin, and some year Waterford will take their place in the top three. Both may happen this year. Sunday will go a long way to telling us which trend is closer to being bucked.