It seems morosely fitting that after ten years of turbulence and toil, Cork’s decade would come an abrupt halt at forty-nine games. One game short of an even fifty, 70 minutes shy of another crack at the title. In hindsight, however, we’d have taken one less, had a certain Domhnall O’Donovan stuck to his day job as a diligent corner-back and not gone rogue under the cover of the Cusack Stand. So forty-nine games it is. We were back, we were miles off, we were back again, we were years away. We were in, we were out. The fickleness of sport encapsulated through one team; hurling’s hokey-pokey. And that’s what it’s all about.
When Kilkenny overpowered an insipid Cork team last month, it marked the cessation of a decade in which a collection of hurlers from Leeside have been unable to transpose their provincial prowess onto Jones’ Road, where the air is tighter and the stakes are higher. The aridity of the past ten years on a national level has been well documented at this stage, it being the first time that Cork have failed to win an All-Ireland since the 1880’s. Perhaps we will leave it to the esteemed historian Paul Rouse to substantiate whether that particular crop of hurlers was similarly labelled as the flakiest team in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
We could extract the positives from negatives and look at Cork’s recent past as the proverbial glass, half-full of Munster Championships. When you consider the wealth of competition in the province over the past ten years and that all five participants have contested recent All-Ireland finals, three Munster’s is a decent haul in any man’s language. Only Tipperary have played in, or won more finals. In fact, they are the only county to emerge from the decade with a better head-to-head record against The Rebels in Munster. Cork’s two successes over the Premier County do however, stick out as high-points; the opening-round victories in 2010 and 2017 conspicuous as ‘We’re back!’ games.
There is something galling about looking at Cork’s Munster record against Clare, the solitary defeat coming in what eventually transpired to be a dead-rubber. Any semblance of satisfaction gleaned from our Munster dominance is of course, completely sullied by 2013 and the one that got away. Winning battles but losing the war. It is also impossible to argue that Munster gold carries the same weight as it did ten years ago, especially when you consider the loftier ambitions of its contestants. When Limerick finally scratched their provincial itch in July 2013, Clare remained as the only county enduring a lengthy fallow spell. Two months later of course, a monsoon would remedy that particular drought.
The Munster successes of 2014 and 2017 will linger long in the memories of Cork supporters. Saying goodbye to the old concrete coliseum added an extra layer of emotion and joyousness when defeating Limerick in ’14, not to mention the atonement for the year previous. The win over Clare three years later brought with it a different kind of emotion, an excited feeling that a sleeping giant was finally awaking from its slumber. By the time the dust settled on 2018 however, Munster medals had already begun to feel a little lighter.
Cork’s record outside of Munster, an accurate reflection of their current status in the game, also illustrates the dearth of competition at the very highest level. Cork have been involved in ten qualifier games this decade, winning eight, which suggests that the navigation through the championship backwaters isn’t all that precarious. Hurling’s aristocracy has effectively remained a closed shop, with less than a dozen teams competing for six places at the latter stages of the championship. Consequently, only twice have Cork failed to reach the quarter-final stage this decade, despite their obvious limitations throughout that period. The paucity of success from this position, three wins at the last-six stage of competition (one of which came against Antrim in 2010) and a solitary semi-final victory, remains a significant sticking point when evaluating the success of this team.
It doesn’t take much to imbue the Cork hurling fraternity with belief. Ten years ago, Tipperary and Kilkenny played out a battle of gladiatorial intensity in the final game of the Noughties and Cork supporters pondered solemnly on how far their own county were from such elevated heights. The following May, the same supporters would glide blissfully down the Centre Park Road, having just witnessed Aisake O’haipin devour a young Padraic Maher without salt. The Rebels were back! A few false dawns later, a couple of rock-bottoms down the line and here we are again, looking upwards, our two greatest rivals perched at seemingly unattainable heights. Expectation levels low but infused with hope.
Bring on the next decade. Bring on next May.