When Cork last tasted national league glory, all of twenty-four years ago, they did so on the back of an eleven-point semi-final victory over Clare. Such was the manner of Clare’s insipid display that day in Thurles, that rumours soon began to reverberate around the watering holes of Munster. The general consensus was that Clare had taken a dive, that the All-Ireland champions were simply playing possum before the two sides reconvened for championship. The more conspiratorial of theorists even inferred that the wily Loughnane had taken his charges to the Garda College in Templemore on the morning of the game, where he proceeded to run their legs to stumps.
Sometimes, you see, it’s easier to concoct an elaborate tale that can be shoehorned into a desired narrative, rather than face the grim reality of a heavy defeat. And with that in mind, can we all just agree that last weekend’s non-performance was nothing more than a nod to the great early-season tradition of shadow-boxing (scáth-dornalaíocht as Jamie Wall recently christened it). It’s all part of the plan, and the bigger picture will soon reveal itself. Right?
Not buying it? Fair enough. Reality it is then. Infuriating inconsistency; a fragmented defence; forwards that flatter to deceive; inability to win primary ball; inability to win secondary ball; work rate, physicality and lack thereof – now how’s that for reality? Of course, none of this is new. Isn’t it mad how the existential crises surrounding Cork hurling seem to arrive earlier and earlier each year? The grand stretch has barely begun and already we are mired in self-flagellating discussions pertaining to the same, interminable troubles that have adorned the tapestry of Cork hurling for well over a decade now.
Imagine a Netflix-style docuseries team had rocked up on Leeside a few years back to provide fly-on-the-wall insight into Cork’s imminent return to the top. By now, producers and viewers alike would be pining for a new storyline, begging for some sort of conflict resolution or at the very least, a fresh and novel way in which Cork’s ascent from the abyss could be thwarted. Not another season with a gaping hole at centre-back! Yawn!
Let’s start there then, with that gaping hole, that half-back highway down which many a fleet footed forward has cantered in the past, with minimal interference and to maximum effect. Supposedly, this old chestnut of a predicament had been rectified. Remember two weeks ago, when it was thought that the presence of Ciarán Joyce and Ger Millerick buzzing around Coleman’s general vicinity had finally allowed the Blarney man to cast off the shackles of defensive duty and fulfil the role he was born to play as Cork’s deep-lying libero. That didn’t last long.
The ripple effect caused further up field has been evident too. If Millerick is tasked with tailing the centre-forward, then naturally enough it falls to Shane Barrett or another of Cork’s half-forwards, none of which are renowned for their defensive capabilities, to pick up Millerick’s slack. And on it goes until there are not enough forwards to win the ball that those same forwards find so difficult to win in the first place. Robbing Peter doesn’t always pay Paul. None of which means that credence should be lent to the recent suggestion by one former player that Kingston should rip up the script entirely and redeploy Coleman at 11 for the Limerick game. Babies, bathwater, deckchairs, Titanic; construct your own analogy from that one.
Now, I suppose it is worth mentioning at this juncture that all of this weary pessimism stems from one game, a game that we can’t be entirely sure even mattered a whole pile to the competing protagonists. As I’ve written before, the beauty of the league is that it can be whatever you want it to be, especially this year where the championship has been abruptly shoved on top of it to facilitate both the club player and Garth Brook’s late-summer residency above in HQ. Cork are still five from seven this Spring, and the Wexford defeat was hardly a cause for any grave concern. If memory allows, and you are of a more cheerful persuasion, you could even garner some positives from the league, the foremost being Cork giving Limerick plenty of it above in their place. Fitzgibbon’s return to full health and the emergence of Joyce and Barrett in traditionally problematic positions are also undoubtable high points.
But as every supporter knows only to well, the inescapable pull of recency bias means that after such a dispiriting defeat, all that has gone before is soon rendered inconsequential. Not so long ago, eight days ago to be exact, we were serious contenders. Just look at us now; hurling’s soft-touch, the perennial underachievers saddled with the same old problems and some new ones to boot. A wholly irrational train of thought I know, but Cork hurling tends to do that to you. After so many years of ups and downs, steps forward and steps back, even the slightest zephyr is enough to extinguish the flickers of hope that a handful of early season victories can bring.
So, choose your poison. The league either matters or it doesn’t. If it does, then last week’s performance must unfortunately be taken with a lot more than a pinch of salt. If it doesn’t, then we can be full sure that Limerick have spent the last nine weeks scheming something unthinkably frightening and Cork are about to witness the full scale of their malevolence. Or…and bear with me on this…is it completely beyond the realms of possibility that the league matters a great deal, only up until the final, at which point the smoke and mirrors ala Loughnane ’98 hastily come to the fore. Wishful thinking I know.
Whatever the case may be, a meeting with the All-Ireland champions down the Pairc (a full Pairc!) now looms large, the latest instalment in a rivalry that has been threatening to bubble to the surface for a few years now. Regardless of what happened last weekend and notwithstanding all of the negative vibes that have just been spewed into print, we’ve waited an awful long time for this. Too long. Too long to let the worst of supporting Cork get in the way of the best of supporting Cork. We could rattle them yet.
The game is on Easter Sunday too you know. And nobody believed Jesus would rise again either.