Vincent Hogan: Cody formula still the one for chasing pack to follow
The bad news of the day gives Jimmy Barry-Murphy a work-worn air as he steps in from the rain to a cat's cradle of out-stretched media arms.
Donal Og Cusack is already on his way to Dublin, facing an empty summer and Heaven knows what beyond. "It doesn't look good," sighs Jimmy, his voice a half-whisper. His history of seeding seemingly tired teams with youth and taking them to the moon has Thurles palpably tingling here. People are talking of '99 again and the blessing of great men having minds of their own.
When all of hurling was in thrall to Clare's epic power, it was Jimmy who gambled on kids and the purity in their wrists. They won an All-Ireland that sports science had all but decreed impossible. And now?
The idea of history repeating itself is suddenly finding a credible tenor. His team has just rolled over Tipperary and into a league final. Kilkenny await. There's Rebel giddiness in the air, but the loss of Donal Og -- a fixture in Cork's goal since Ger Cunningham stepped down in '98 -- tugs at every smile.
"It looks like he's gone for the summer," confirms Jimmy. "Dr Hodgins there told me he's gone to Dublin for an examination in the morning. It looks like an Achilles tendon problem. Very disappointing, shattering for himself. I'm very disappointed for him. He's been a great captain for us, been a great leader to the players in the dressing-room."
At 35, the implications of a tendon rupture could be grave for Cusack's career. The 16th-minute incident had been innocuous, but the sight of the St John's Ambulance people calling for a stretcher sent an immediate hush through the stands. Barry-Murphy went to Cusack in the dressing-room at half-time but was, essentially, waved away.
"He said to me, 'Go on away, look after the players, don't mind about me. Cork hurling is all that matters. Drive on with the team'," revealed the manager. From here, he has no option.
On every other level, this was Cork's day. All the good impressions made in early spring were reaffirmed emphatically. They hurled with a fluency and pace that burned Tipp off in the final quarter, their marquee kids -- Conor Lehane and Darren Sweetnam -- even taking time out from the exam hall to put in impressive cameos from the bench.
Cork won the last 13 minutes 1-7 to 0-1. As statements go, it was crystal clear. And, when Barry-Murphy talked afterwards of his contentment with the project, the competition for places and that, you found it easy to believe that he would truly relish that shot at Brian Cody's extraordinary team on Sunday week.
Cork won when they met in Pairc Ui Chaoimh and the kid, Lehane, survived the rite of initiation that big men like Michael Fennelly master in. "Just remember being on my back and looking up," he smiles innocently now. "I had to get back up and drive on. No point lying down feeling sorry for yourself.
"Nah, it should be a great final if it's anything like the last day down in the Pairc. Hopefully, it'll be just as good and intense. They're so physical and they read the play so well, that's why it's so difficult to play against them. If we can fight against that, hopefully we can get a few scores on the board."
For Barry-Murphy, the extra game represented the sweetest bonus. "We're not playing (championship) until June 24, so we wanted to get to that final for another game," he told us. "We made that quite clear, spoke about it all week."
Tipp should be their opponents that June Sunday but, after this, who can tell? The odd thing about them today is their struggle to create attacking space. Few deliveries ask unorthodox questions of their opponents and, of course, there is no Lar inside even if they did. So Tipp look predictable on the front foot. They go direct to a big full-forward and, if Brian O'Meara isn't thriving, the whole attack gets caught in a communal stasis. O'Meara did well yesterday, but he is carrying a heavy load.
Eoin Kelly and Seamus Callanan were back on the bench yesterday and Patrick 'Bonnar' Maher goes for a scan today to see how close he is to a return. But there hasn't been a chorus line chasing down Corbett's jersey. That's the worry. "Very flat performance," conceded Declan Ryan. "We never seemed to ignite at any stage. 'Twas very flat there finishing up. That lack of energy is a mental thing. It's not physical anyway. Unfortunately, it seems to strike at Tipp every now and again. And, when it does, we can look very ordinary."
Kilkenny gave the air of men who hadn't exactly got out of bed with butterflies in the ribcage as they looked after Clare. They played with what could maybe best be called a quiet equanimity. Clare have a long road to travel to meet them on an equal footing but, then again, so has the rest of hurling. No one expected a surprise here and, at no stage, did we feel an inclination to get frisky.
So it bore the gentlest sense of a warm-up act, an exercise in guiding the paying customers through some easy breathing exercises before the need arose to clear their throats.
For Brian Cody, it was no more than a day in the laboratory, heating and mixing different compounds, searching for what little remains undiscovered. Early in the second half, he brought Eoin Larkin out to the right wing, put Richie Power full-forward and invited TJ Reid to become their attacking fulcrum on the '40'. The adjustments seemed to sweeten both lines and they just eased out over the horizon.
Davy Fitz railed later against the officiating and, if that bore the aimless sound of a stone tossed into a canyon, you could understand his ire. Matt Ruth's goal came indirectly from a line decision wrongly given Kilkenny's way and Eoin Larkin seemed to take too many steps before making the critical offload.
That said, short of snipers in the stand, it was hard to see how Clare could have won against a team that palpably had more gears in reserve.
Some rhythms never change.