No time like the present for Rebels to lift Liam

Published 05/09/2013 | 05:26

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Cork players celebrate victory as a dejected Simon Lambert, Dublin, ponders what might have been after the All-Ireland SHC semi-final in Croke Park, Dublin

Regardless of what transpires in Croke Park next Sunday, there is no denying that it's been a year of considerable progress for the Cork hurlers.

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Getting to an All-Ireland final wouldn't have been regarded as a realistic target at the start of the season, perhaps even by the team management, who had more than their share of problems to contend with at the time.

Aside from having to cope with a few retirements and player defections from last year's squad, Jimmy Barry-Murphy and his co-mentors Johnny Crowley, Ger Cunningham, Kieran Kingston and Seanie McGrath weren't exactly the flavour of the month in some quarters after they opted to dispense with the services of a couple of seasoned stalwarts prior to the league campaign.

Needless to say, their critics were in full cry after Cork were demoted in the league, with a number of pundits suggesting that JBM was going nowhere with this particular bunch of players.

Yet, they had performed creditably in the majority of their games in Division 1A, and their form overall was no more inconsistent than that of any other team in the group where the margins between qualifying for the play-offs and being involved in a relegation play-off were wafer-thin in the end.

Cork's only poor display in the group stage came against Clare at Pairc Ui Rinn where they shipped an eight-point thrashing from Davy Fitzgerald's side.

As things turned out, rivalry was renewed with the Banner in the relegation final, and again Clare prevailed in a contest that went to extra time.

It would be fair to say, however, that Cork were fortunate and flattered to be level at the end of regulation time, given that Clare were extremely profligate during the 70 minutes, accumulating 24 wides, 12 more than the Rebels.

JBM pointed out afterwards that Cork hadn't done much work on their fitness-levels for the league, suggesting that this was the primary reason why they had failed to go the distance in both encounters with Clare.

Whether or which, Cork were very much cast in the role of the underdog when they squared up to Clare in the championship, particularly since they had been hit by an injury-crisis that forced the management to plan without Pa Cronin, Lorcan McLoughlin and Paudie O'Sullivan, who had been ruled out for the season.

In addition, Clare went into the match boosted by a first-round victory over Waterford, and the general consensus was that they would take a lot of stopping on their best form.

Cork made a mockery of most pre-match predictions, however, finishing with eight points to spare to advance to a Munster final meeting with Limerick.

It didn't go according to plan against the Shannonsiders, who enjoyed the benefit of an extra-man following the controversial dismissal of Patrick Horgan shortly before half time.

That unquestionably had a vital bearing on the outcome, with Cork's numerical disadvantage taking its toll in the last ten minutes when Limerick fired over seven unanswered points to run out winners by nine.

The perception was that the defeat by Limerick had put paid to Cork's hopes of lifting a major title for the first time since they won Munster in 2006, especially since their next assignment was against Kilkenny, who, on the trail of the three-in-a-row, appeared to be building up a bit of steam again after losing to Dublin in a semi final replay in Leinster.

Brian Cody's Cats had edged out Tipperary and Waterford in the interim, but Cork performed superbly to claim their most prestigious scalp since JBM assumed the reins of control last year

The result completed a season of seismic shocks which has dramatically altered the hurling landscape, with the three teams that topped the ante-post betting - Kilkenny, Tipp and Galway - all consigned to the championship scrapheap before August.

While Cork were full value for their five-point win, it had to be acknowledged that Kilkenny's cause wasn't helped by the fact that, with the legendary Henry Shefflin picking up a second yellow card, they played the entire second half with just 14 men.

It was a similar story in the All-Ireland semi final, and - while Cork had looked the better team in the first half against Kilkenny and would probably have prevailed in any case - it's impossible to say how things would have panned out had Dublin's Ryan O'Dwyer not been issued with his marching orders for the last 20 minutes.

What cannot be disputed is that Cork and Dublin served up a marvellous hurling spectacle, containing levels of skill, courage, sportsmanship and intensity comparable to any on display in a big game at Croke Park in recent years.

It underlined Cork's rapid rate of development this season and how the player's self-belief has been nourished under the stewardship of JBM, who continued to preach positivity in the wake of the setback against Limerick in the Munster final.

Aside from the Limerick game, it wouldn't be too wide of the mark to suggest that Cork have got the vital breaks in all of their other championship outings, including the opener against Clare.

The fact is that Clare failed to avail of several goal chances on the day, and, had they taken one or two of them, especially when playing with a strong wind in the first half, it might well have worked wonders for their confidence, and there could have been a different tale to tell at the end of the 70 minutes.

I always felt that Davy Fitzgerald's tender-aged charges had the potential to recover from the chastening experience endured against Cork and could go a long way in the championship.

Apart from a slight blip when their shooting wasn't up to scratch again and they were forced into extra-time by Wexford in the qualifiers, they have performed with immense flair and assurance in the interim

Unlike Cork, there was no ambiguity surrounding the merit of their two wins in the lead-up to the showpiece over Galway and Limerick, and, with two All-Ireland u-21 titles in the bag since 2009, the majority of their players - including excellent full back David McInerney, midfielders Colm Galvin and the richly-talented Tony Kelly, and highly accomplished attacker Podge Collins, all of whom will be expected to pick up another u-21 medal in a few weeks time - aren't unaccustomed to success.

Simply put, this is the most talented group of young hurlers ever produced by the Banner, and the indications are that they will develop into an exceptional side in the years ahead.

They really blossomed in the semi-final against Limerick, and the fear from a Cork point of view is that if Clare get a bit of momentum going from the start on Sunday, they might well go on to set Croke Park alight once again.

Cork have made great strides this year, but Kilkenny, Tipperary and Galway haven't gone away, and it's going to be a very competitive championship in 2014.

So, there is no guarantee that Cork will get another opportunity like this in the near future, but if they can prevent Clare from getting a bit of a run on them early on, they might be able to make the most of it on Sunday.

Corkman

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