Sometimes you eat the bar, and sometimes the bar eats you. Sometimes in the GAA predictions game, you write pieces that make you look like a genius (well, I can’t remember them now, but I’m sure they’re out there). Sometimes there are pieces you write that make you look…well, whatever the opposite of a genius is.
So, I wasn’t to know. When I sat down to write an inflammatory post in April about Cork Hurling (https://sportstalk.ie/strikes-kill-cork-hurling/) after another unconvincing National League, I wasn’t to know that an Arab Spring like revival was just around the corner. Cork hurling is dead? No, they weren’t dead baby. They were just having a break.
So, I was wrong. And I apologize wholeheartedly to the Rebel fraternity for it. Rumours of Cork hurling’s death have been greatly exaggerated. They are, without doubt, one of the best sides in the country again. They have been the most exciting, most in-form team in the Championship this year. So mea culpa from me. Then again, what does it matter what I say? What matters is what they do in Croke Park this Sunday.
So, will they do it? Will they get to their first All-Ireland hurling final in 4 years? Will they reach an All-Ireland final for the first time as provincial champions since 2006? Well, on the basis of all form thus far, you’d have to say that yes, they will. They’ve already beaten Waterford three times in competitive action this year: in the Munster League, the National League, and the Munster Championship. Given that, it seems prudent to back them to do so again in Croke Park.
What’s interesting about the Rebel renaissance, is how much the previously dormant county’s followers have got behind them. The fervour around the side is now comparable to their last great era of the mid 00’s. Perhaps that’s because the style of play of the side is so refreshing, and the likes of Mark Coleman, Luke Meade and the other young stars have lit up the championship.
Yet in relative terms at least, the Cork famine hasn’t been that great. Ok, sure, it’s 12 years since they’ve won a senior All-Ireland hurling final, and that’s their joint second biggest drought in history. But it’s worth noting that they won the Munster final only 3 years ago and were only a puck of the ball away from winning the All-Ireland in 2013. So, while 12 years is definitely a dry spell for a county of Cork’s stature, it’s nothing compared to what Tipperary suffered during the 70’s and 80’s. And it’s just a drop in the ocean compared to what their Sunday rivals have endured.
Funnily enough, for a side that have been much more consistent over the past 3 years than their opponents, Waterford are 7/4 underdogs going into Sunday’sgame. Given that this is their third consecutive year in the semi-final, and they have beaten Kilkenny for the first time in 58 years in order to get here, Derek McGrath will look on this season, whatever happens from here on, as one of relative success. They are undoubtedly one of the best 4 sides in the county.
Then again, they were in the exact same position as this throughout most of the 00’s. And there is a world of difference between being one of the best, and being the actual top dog. So, while consistency is admirable, progression to the next step, an All-Ireland final, is necessary. You could reasonably argue that given their relative experience, it’s much more important for the Deise to win this game than Cork.
The Waterford build up has been completely dominated by the Tadgh De Burca suspension saga. After initially appealing to the CHC, the CAC (don’t ask us what those letters mean) eventually shot down his appeal on Friday morning. Whatever about those who viewed the game live, or saw the grainy television footage, at least there is some sort of consistency in his suspension being upheld. Now the GAA can claim that they have a suspension system that works, and not one that can be exploited for any minor technicality. Sure, we all wanted him to play the game, but what was happening throughout the hurling world in the past week had become ridiculous. The #freetadghdeburca hashtag has been thrown about with such abandon on Twitter, you’d swear that he was being held hostage in the Lebanon.
That De Burca is an integral piece of the Waterford jigsaw and is the best (cough) “sweeper” in the game is not in doubt. But even given that, it would have been remiss of the management not to have been planning assiduously for his absence since the Wexford clash. At the very least, Waterford should have a replacement in place who is comfortable playing as a 7th defender for Sunday’s game. They would have needed that if, god forbid, De Burca was say, injured anyway. Barring that, maybe they will decide to go with an orthodox six defenders and take on Cork man for man, as they almost did so successfully in the semi-final against Kilkenny last year.
Whatever about Sunday, if Waterford are to go all the way this year, and as one of the last 3 teams, they would be foolish not to think in those terms, then being able to play both a sweeper based and non-sweeper based style is essential for them. De Burca’s replacement, Ballysaggart’s Kieran Bennett, is hardly like for like (Who is?). He hasn’t started a game for Waterford in the championship, so it’s a massive risk for him to be given this opportunity, but then again youth and inexperience can sometimes be an advantage. We only have to look at how well Cork’s young guns have coped this year as evidence of that.
There’s an argument to be made that Waterford are better off now knowing that De Burca is suspended. Undergoing one of those protracted “Will they, won’t they suspend me” debates can never be good for someone pre-game and players, such as Diarmuid Connolly, have often under-performed after being granted a reprieve. We won’t get to find out if De Burca would have been mentally strong enough to cope with it, but considering the amount of time they’ve had to plan for the scenario, De Burca’s absence can’t really be used as an excuse if Waterford do fall. Darragh Fives is likely to play as a sweeper in Tadgh’s absence, and I’m sure he will be well prepared for the role.
There has been this theory floating throughout the summer, that Derek McGrath is well within his rights to play 7 defenders as Waterford probably don’t have enough scoring potential in their forwards to defeat other sides in shootouts. But is that really the case? Certainly, while there are workhorses such as Kevin Moran and “Brick” Walsh in their forward line, Waterford have also got adept scorers such as Pauric Mahony, Jake Dillion, the Bennett’s and Austin Gleeson. And that’s not to mention the firepower they have on the bench, in terms of Maurice Shanahan, Timmy Ryan and Brian O’Halloran. All of those subs have come into the fray in recent games to make a crucial impact. In terms of talent, that’s a forward line that looks the match, if not better, than Cork’s.
So, you couldn’t argue that experience is in Cork’s favour, or arguably, ability either. What the “real capital” do have going for them, is form. Even then though, there has been a 5-week gap since their last outing, and we saw last week how Galway struggled to get to grips with the game in the early stages. Cork will need to hit the ground running on Sunday. If not, and Waterford get into an early lead, they’re likely to retreat into an even more defensive shell.
Another thing that’s in Cork’s favour, is tradition. It doesn’t take much for the innate Corkness, some may say cockiness, to come out in the county’s character, once they get a couple of wins under their belt. On the other hand, Waterford’s record in semi-finals (1 victory in their last 12) is awful, and must be playing on their mind before Sunday.
Together with the City’s soccer side doing so well in the League of Ireland, it’s been a year of revival for Cork sport. Last week the county won the inaugural under 17 All-Ireland title in Croke Park, their first underage All-Ireland since, amazingly, 2001. So, whatever about the county’s declining hurling fortunes, it’s fair to say (as that other great Cork man Bill O’Herlihy used to) that whatever crisis took place is now coming to a conclusion.
Prior to the semi-final draw the standard line being peddled was that Cork would not have wanted to face Waterford, as they have met them already in the championship, but is that really the case? It’s happened on 12 occasions that a side has met twice in the championship, and of those 12, the team that won the initial game has prevailed in the follow up on 6 occasions. On the 2 occasions that it happened for Cork and Waterford (in 2005 and 2007) the team that was victorious in the first game was also the winners in the second. So, if anything, you could say that Cork’s earlier victory may give them a psychological edge going into this encounter.
That clash in June produced an excellent first half, but the Waterford challenge died out disappointingly in the second. They’ve managed to revive themselves since then, so they should be able to give a better account of themselves this time. Cork ran out easy winners in that game, but you would expect the fare to be closer now. We’ve already had one classic semi-final. Let’s hope we have another cracker Sunday.