This time last year, Cork were touching the void. There was something cataclysmic about the unholy trinity of losses to Waterford in the league final, Limerick in the opening round of the Munster Championship and Clare in the second round in our adopted home of Thurles. Each game felt like a nadir in its own right for different reasons.
The Waterford game because of our recent appalling record in league finals, the Limerick game because of the ease in which they dealt with us on the back of the near humiliation in the previous year’s All-Ireland Final and the Clare game because of the way in which they outscored Cork by 0-11 to 0-1 in the opening half as Cork’s centre just could not hold.
The season seemed to be an utterly lost cause, but St Anthony took pity on us, for a while, anyway.
Now, 374 days later, Cork find themselves undefeated and on top of the Munster Round Robin after defeating Waterford with ease and snatching a point from Tipperary after an epic night of action down the Páirc last Saturday night.
The game itself wasn’t of the 99th percentile, but the occasion itself was galvanising, exhilarating, intoxicating. The sun baked down as a torrent of red streamed out from the city towards the Marina, the Páirc seemed a bit fuller than the announced attendance of 36,765, there were goals galore, outrageous swings of fortune, thrills, spills and probably a few bellyaches by the time Saturday night met Sunday morning.
On the walk out from the stadium it certainly felt like a point gained as opposed to a point lost and now, with the game gathering dust in the vast annals of this blue ribband of rivalries, that feeling holds true.
There were moments in the game that brought to mind moments we’d prefer to banish from our minds. There was Ronan Maher standing in glorious isolation and plucking balls from the sky, unopposed, there was the way in which Tipp outscored Cork by 0-11 to 0-2 after Cork’s blistering start, there was the way that, for long passages of the game, that Cork turned into trouble and didn’t move the ball quickly enough. And there was the great Noel McGrath.
There was a lot to like about Cork too. There were the goals, the opening and closing acts, but most of all, there was the resilience. Resilience is often an underrated quality, and there’s no doubt that it is a quality that Cork have been accused of lacking in the past, but here they showed it in abundance on each occasion that the game seemed to be slipping away from them.
However, often those shows of fortitude, that seemed to give Cork a foothold in the game, were followed by moments of self-harm. Brilliant goals, exquisite saves and more coherent forward play were balanced out by a misplaced pass here, a loose puckout there, a poor wide, an over-elaboration in possession; the type of things that suck the energy out of a performance. And yet, they found a way. They found a way to get something out of a game that they never played well enough in for long enough to expect anything from. That’s to be admired, and that’s certainly progress.
That desire to keep fighting until the bitter end has been omnipresent since the start of the year and they are showing an ability to get something out of games that would previously have slipped away from them. The hope would be that the longer that Cork can stay in the championship, the better chance they will have of marrying that undoubted resilience with more fluent hurling as they try and get their best team out onto the field.
It’s the getting the best team on the field that has been the hardest thing though. Pat Ryan made reference to it in the aftermath of the game and it’s still very much a work in progress for many reasons including the injuries that have hampered the blending of the new and returning faces with the core group of the panel.
If you were told 374 days ago that Cork would be top of the group a year later you’d have been happy. If you were told that they’d be top and that none of Mark Coleman, Seán O’Donoghue, Tim O’Mahony and Alan Connolly would have started a game and that Robbie O’Flynn would have only thirty-five minutes played, your mood might have been somewhere between incredulous and giddy.
Obviously, any sense of optimism is tempered by what is in store for Cork over the next few weeks along with the fresh concern over O’Flynn, the lack of game time in the legs of Fitzgibbon, O’Donoghue and O’Mahony along with the long term absences of Coleman and Connolly. The trips to Ennis and Limerick loom large on the horizon and this new panel is soon to be tested in a way it has never experienced before. Cork are top for now, but in no way is it guaranteed that they’ll be in the top three by the end of the month.
That feeling was evident in all conversations after the game and it has become more pronounced in the days since as all of the permutations and combinations have been examined. For Cork though, the equation is frightfully straight forward. They have two chances to get the victory they need to secure their passage into the All-Ireland series. Half way through any campaign, what more could you really wish for?
Had Cork managed to rescue a victory from the jaws of defeat, they would be facing into the exact same predicament. They would still need results in either Ennis or Limerick or both. Is it difficult? Of course it is, and that’s they way that it should be because, ultimately, if Cork are to be a serious force again then the challenge of trips to places like Ennis, places loaded with cordite and laced with the whiff of grapeshot, need to be embraced, to be relished and, ultimately, to be won.