Christ, you’d miss it. Even in its warped state, you’d miss it. The Gaelic Grounds and its soulless environs; the Championship-Lite atmosphere and the swathes of empty seats; the slow crawl through Buttevant and the winding, monotonous roads through the back-arse of North Cork. Hook it to my veins. A different experience no doubt, but a different Cork too. And ultimately, that same undiluted euphoria.
By my reckoning, and discounting a couple of victories over poor Dublin sides, you’ve to go all the way back to July 2015 for the last time Cork beat a serious hurling outfit in a do-or-die championship match. Clare were the fall-guys that time too, in a game where an unsung Brian Lawton was given the unenviable task of tailing Tony Kelly. He did a job on him too, from what I recall. For much of the game yesterday, Niall O’Leary did a job too, attaching himself to Clare’s talisman and making a nuisance of himself to such an extent that at one point, Kelly resorted to dragging him to the floor in the hope of coercing a yellow card and the breathing space that it might allow. With twenty minutes remaining however, TK began to fizz. A pirouette and a wonder point over by the sideline reduced the deficit to one. Cue wild gesticulations to the ebullient Clare crowd and a pat on the back to his beleaguered dance partner that in a moment, seemed to encapsulate the pervading mood. Another lead wiped out, another capitulation in the white heat of battle and another season consigned to the overflowing dustbin of Cork hurling failures.
Previous Cork teams would have wilted in the tropical Limerick sun. It is becoming abundantly clear however that this Cork side is a different animal to that which went before and as such, yesterday’s victory felt like a seismic moment in the evolution of this young team. Unlike last year, when the chips were down against Tipp, Horgan and Harnedy thundered into the game when they were needed most. With Clare leading by one, Alan Connolly was introduced to join Shane Barrett in the full-forward line, the two stars from the u-20’s recent All-Ireland final success entrusted in salvaging the game. To borrow the well-worn phrase from Irish political parlance, this was senior hurling now. Between them, they clipped 1-2, answering any questions on that front. At the other end, Collins did what Collins does and Cork found a way to survive.
Three weeks ago, the result was largely immaterial. Few expected a win over Limerick, but a performance, something to cling to, was absolutely paramount. Yesterday, the result was the be-all and end-all, the performance purely a means to an end. The game was never going to be conducive to Cork’s short passing style, against a dogged Clare team and the concertinaed middle-third that they tend to bring to the table. Their half-back line was there to be got at though, that much was known from the outset. As we know only too well, square pegs rarely fill the round hole at No.6 and Conlon was always likely to struggle against Cork’s hares. To be fair, he wasn’t the only one. Rory Hayes, an All-Star nominee last year, is certainly no slouch, but at times Jack O’Connor made it seem as if the poor lad was traipsing around in lead boots.
Years ago, if you recall, we possessed an inside forward who famously (if perhaps apocryphally) claimed that he “doesn’t do points”. O’Connor clearly abides by Santy’s creed. As a whole, Cork’s newfound appetite for goals is a refreshing antidote to the gorging of white flags preferred by most teams. We could have had five or six, but three isn’t a bad innings by any means and such a return certainly helps to mask inefficiencies elsewhere in the forward division. In the fourteen championship matches played so far this year, only four times has a team failed to exceed twenty points. Cork, in both games now, have failed to do so. You can’t help but think that the green flags won’t be as easily obtainable from here on in. Jack mightn’t do points, but someone has to.
At least our full back line are making it their business to keep the goals at bay at the other end of the field, Clare’s two late strikes removing much of the gloss from an otherwise immense display of defensive frugality. Sean O’Donoghue licked his lips and satiated himself on whatever pieces of meat Lohan mercilessly threw into his enclosure. By the end, the skeletal remains of three Clare attackers lay strewn across the Gaelic Grounds. Alongside him, Downey minded the house in Cahalane’s absence and allayed any fears about giving him the keys for the remainder of the season. As I’m sure Kelly will attest to, there is a certain nastiness to this Cork defense now. It’s a nastiness that is welcomed.
So it’s Tipp or the Dubs next weekend then. Galway could have done us a favour in defeating Waterford yesterday but at the same time, tip-toing around the big guns will only get you so far. Of course, Dublin would be the desired draw but then again, who’s to say that Cork can’t overcome a shell-shocked Tipperary who may be questioning the meaning of life in the wake of their Munster Final blitzing. Whatever happens now, it’s a marked improvement on last year and the recent feats of our minors and under-20’s only helps to solidify the belief that Cork hurling is on an upward curve at last. A magnanimous Lohan even said as much after the game.
Yes, I know, we’ve heard that song before. Too many times. The past few weeks have evoked memories of July 2017, when a heatwave was sweeping through the country and the Cork seniors, 21’s and minors were scything their way through Munster. Back then, 8,000 giddy patrons packed Pairc Úi Rinn on a Monday night to watch the minors beat Tipp and for a few short weeks, all was right with the world. A lot of water, much of it tears, has passed under the bridge since then. A week is a long time in hurling, especially when the games are coming thick and fast. This time next week, we could be out of the championship and our provincial crown at u-20 level wrested from us by a Limerick juggernaut that shows no signs of slowing down. But we could just easily be in an All-Ireland semi final.
Make no mistake about it, Cork hurling is beginning to gently simmer. It might not be this year, it might not be next year, but sooner or later it’s going to come to the boil.