Ten years ago, when Cork so very nearly snatched a victory from a game they most definitely should have lost in the All-Ireland final, the sheer relief of a draw and another crack at the title couldn’t override the sense that our best chance at claiming number 31 had passed. Having wrestled with the melange of emotion brought about by ten minutes of utterly frenetic Munster hurling last night, it was a painfully similar feeling that eventually suppressed all others. That of an opportunity squandered. And one that could prove critical. Yes, we were fortunate to get out of the Páirc with a draw. And yes, there are a number of positives to be mined from what, in all honesty, was a fairly uninspiring performance for the most part. But still, you just can’t help shaking the sense that when all is said and done at the end of May, that one point so gamely pilfered from Tipperary’s hands might not be enough. There is no denying that a win and a draw from two games is a decent return at this midway point. After all, no other team in the bear-pit of Munster have managed to better it. There is also no denying that in the two championship games we’ve witnessed so far, this Cork team have shown marked improvement from what has come before. And yet.
Had John McGrath pointed to win it at the death, you’d like to think that the loss wouldn’t have been met with the kind of vociferous condemnation that has accompanied so many of our defeats in the past (this blog included). We’ve been through the wringer enough times now to know that there was a glaring contrast between what transpired last night, even with Tipperary dominating proceedings for the best part of an hour, and previous performances where Cork supporters were left in various states of existential angst. Remember this time last year, in game 2 of the round-robin, where Cork found themselves in what was then deemed a must-win game above in Thurles? Clare savaged Cork mercilessly that day, in a similar fashion to what Tipp inflicted on us last night. Even with a numerical advantage and twenty minutes to salvage the season, Cork lacked both the want and the wherewithal to make a game of it. Whatever criticism you can lay at the door of Pat Ryan’s charges after last night’s display, a lack of fight certainly isn’t one of them.
Earlier in the year, Ryan referenced character and hardness as the fundamental corner stones upon which he hopes to win an All-Ireland. Intangible metrics in many respects, but attributes that fall under the banner You know it when you see it. Yesterday, we saw it. While Tipp bested Cork physically for large portions of the game, there is a stark difference between being bettered and being bullied. Cork were never bullied and as a result, the gap between the teams never fell into the realm of the insurmountable. What caused the gap in the first place was a lack of cohesion and at times a conspicuous lack of structure around the midfield battle ground (who in the name of God was meant to be picking up Seamus Kennedy?). Throw in poor decision making, errant shooting and a multitude of turnovers while you’re at it. But we knew beforehand that Cork wouldn’t be allowed to hurl with the same freedom so kindly afforded to them by Waterford last week. We knew too that Tipp would provide the real testing ground for the likes of Roche, O’Connell and Eoin Downey, all playing in the white heat of a ‘real’ Munster championship game for the first time. As it turned out, they struggled massively. But there’s no shame in that either. It’s games like these that are the making of players. We’d have lost that game by eight or nine in years gone by so there must be something there.
In this respect, the unforgiving nature of the Munster round-robin can be seen as both a blessing and a curse. A blessing insofar as the young players that now populate much of Cork’s starting 15 are currently being subjected to a two-month crash-course in high-octane championship hurling, where mistakes are ruthlessly punished. Such an invaluable education could previously have taken years to complete. The curse lies in the knowing that the next test is merely two weeks away and lessons need to be learned, fast. In an interview with the Irish Examiner back in December, Ryan mentioned that “every player should be a better hurler by the time I’m finished”, an earnest maxim but one which fails to account for the urgency demanded of his remit. The harsh reality is that if Cork are to progress through to the All-Ireland series, Ryan will need to ensure that every player is a better hurler by in fourteen days’ time when Cork travel to Ennis. No easy task.
A significant part of the puzzle remains the absence of anything close to a settled team. Post-game, Ryan admitted that he’s “still trying to figure out exactly what our pecking order is” and as Cork enter into their third championship game, it is worrying that close to a third of the jerseys are still up for grabs. A lot has been made of Cork’s perceived strength in depth and while this is true to a certain extent, having an assortment of thirty or so players of roughly the same standard is of little use unless three or four can grasp their opportunities and elevate themselves above the masses. A wide squad perhaps, rather than a deep squad is what we’re looking at and to borrow from American football parlance, “If you’ve got two quarterbacks, you’ve got none”. Unfortunately for Pat Ryan, this seems to be an appropriate idiom across a whole host of positions.
In beating the All-Ireland champions last weekend, Clare infused the entire championship with an unexpected frisson of excitement and raised the stakes across the board. If Limerick have indeed returned to ‘the pack’, every meeting henceforth between the six or seven teams that constitute said pack are now more relevant than ever. Last year, Clare failed to raise a gallop having come through a game of similarly epic proportions against Limerick in the Munster Final but it would be wishful thinking to imagine the same thing happening this time around. It’ll be a full house in Cusack Park and you can rest assured that the bruising intensity that Clare brought against Limerick will be replicated, if not ramped up within the tight confines of their own patch. With one loss on the board for Lohan’s men already, it will likely be do-or-die for them too, irrespective of what happens against Waterford. Another game in which we will be subjected to the fury that encapsulates Munster hurling at present. Another game in which we can either embrace the chaos or let it suffocate us into submission.
As Páirc Uí Chaoimh closes its doors on Cork hurling for another year, the show goes on the road. And with it all the colour and the noise that only a Cork cavalcade can bring. The paucity of support that accompanied Waterford and Tipp to Leeside over the past two weeks did little to assuage whatever incalculable disadvantages accrue from an away fixture. Would Waterford’s short-lived comeback after half time have gained more momentum had they more than a smattering of white jerseys in their corner? Would Cork’s comeback have fallen short had they not the cacophonous roar of an entire stadium at their backs? Who knows. Either way, it won’t be the same when we make two trips to the Shannon estuary over the coming weeks. We’ll travel in our droves. As always.
Two trips from which one point might just be enough. Two trips from which even that one point will be a monumental ask. Clare first, and if the siege of Ennis proves unfruitful, then the walls of Limerick will have to be clambered. No one said it would be easy. If nothing else, we’ll go down swinging.