And then there were four

And so the Rebelution continues unabated, on the hurling front at least. A comprehensive victory for the minors over Limerick, another provincial crown for the under-20’s and most importantly, the comfortable navigation of the seniors through to the All-Ireland semi-final. Well, it was comfortable to a point. When Danny Sutcliffe split the posts to reduce the deficit to four points with five minutes remaining, even the most optimistic of Cork supporters must have sensed that it was happening again, you know that thing where we insist on making heavy weather of the calmest climes. It’s been a staple of our summer so far, to such an extent that you’d be forgiven for wondering if Cork teams were purposely contriving to ensure tight games at the death, just to rid themselves of the propensity to lose tight games at the death. Alas, Dublin don’t possess a Tony Kelly and thus, with a minute or so remaining, Cork supporters could make the swift transition from Semple to Mackey’s Bar, safe in the knowledge that their team was home and hosed.

I wrote last year of Dublin’s innate tendency to disappoint, just when it appears that they might make the step up and become a serious hurling contender. Having defeated Galway in their opening game this season, one might have thought them capable of rattling a few more cages as the season progressed. Much like ourselves in years gone by however, back-to-back performances have proved beyond them. To be fair, Cork were just a class above, simple as. The bookies odds reflected as much going into the game. We’d all like to see Dublin hurling do well, just in the same way we’d like to see a revival in Offaly football. All well and good, as long as it’s not at our expense. Don’t be getting notions on our watch, thank you very much. That’s two years in a row now that we’ve ended Dublin’s season, two years in a row that Mattie Kenny’s charges have provided the perfect overture to tougher tests ahead.

It doesn’t get much tougher than Kilkenny above in Croke Park and the renewal of a rivalry that has become diluted in recent years, a natural by-product of both counties’ respective failings. Six years is a famine up there don’t you know. The two sides have only met twice in the championship since 2010, a peculiar quirk when you consider that Cork have reached five All-Ireland semi finals since then, Kilkenny seven. A return to the bitter rivalry and the mutual disdain that transcended much of the Noughties – socks down, Stepford Wives and all that jazz – would be welcomed, a tell-tale sign that we are back on track. You’d hate to think that they’ve grown indifferent to us. Before we’re hated however, we must be feared, and it’s been a while since any Cork team has cost Cody a night’s sleep. You get the feeling that that might be beginning to change.

Cork’s defeat of Dublin means that over the past two championship seasons, Munster and Leinster sides have faced off on ten occasions. Save for Galway’s defeat of Tipperary in the All-Ireland quarter-final last November, Munster sides have won the rest. So can you extrapolate from that little nugget of information that Cork should have the upper hand against Kilkenny, now that the Cats have been removed from their provincial sanctuary? Sure, why not. Kilkenny’s championship campaign began with an extra-time victory over Wexford, a game in which the eventual eight-point margin did its best to mask the frenzied, tit-for-tat nature of the duel. As became clear subsequently, and to borrow a phrase from the Gilesian book of analysis, Wexford are “no great shakes”. And look, if Clare are better than Wexford and Cork are better than Clare…well, you know where I’m going with this. Yet more irrefutable evidence that Cork should fancy their chances.

That manic Leinster semi-final now seems an age away, such has been the compressed nature of this year’s championship. Since then, an unremarkable nine-point win over a depleted Dublin team is all Kilkenny have had to show for themselves, which means we are rather devoid of sufficient evidence to substantiate their All-Ireland credentials. Apart from the fact that it’s Kilkenny of course, where such credentials are carved in stone. Or marble. What we know for sure is that this Kilkenny team, though clearly not the force of old, will make it incredibly hard for any team and this, coupled with our proclivity to make it hard for ourselves should ensure that Cork will probably need to be four or five points the better team to win by the bare minimum. A tough ask, no doubt.

But who’s to say that Cork are not four or five points the better team? It doesn’t take much for that distinctive hubris to resurface, I hear you say, but while Kilkenny have been twiddling their thumbs over the past two weekends, Cork have been busy road-testing a vehicle that looks primed for the vast, open thoroughfares of Jones’ Road. The extra space afforded up in Croke Park (some quick research would suggest it’s eight metres wider than Thurles) will surely play to the advantage of a Cork team stacked with runners, in both defence and attack, none more so than our whippet in the corner. Has there been a more improved hurler in Ireland over the past ten months than Jack O’Connor? Last Winter, or indeed in any of Cork’s championship outings since he made his debut in 2018, O’Connor did little to suggest he was capable of morphing into a player that infuses supporters with the kind of giddy hysteria not seen since the summer of Setanta. There’s a steeliness to the kid too, and speed and steel is a potent mix. We’ll need it in spades for what comes next.

This is bonus territory now you could say, but considering the momentum garnered over the past few weeks, it would be a shame if the tidal wave of Rebel energy was to peter out once again at the penultimate stage. All roads lead to Croke Park next weekend then, where four will be whittled down to two. Few would have expected us to have outlasted both Galway and Tipp back in June and even fewer would have expected us to be entering into an All-Ireland semi-final against Kilkenny with such unabashed confidence. Yet here we are. Any expectations must be tampered of course by the memories of 2017 and ’18 and the supposed Cork hurling revivals that soon fell away to nothing. Famous last words perhaps, but this time feels different.

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