Enigmatic Cork can finally end losing run
All-Ireland SF Final
Cork v Down, 3.30, Croke Park
D Coldrick (Meath). Live RTE 2
THEY haven't met in the championship for 16 years or in the League for well over a decade; they have never clashed in the All-Ireland final; they have had only one previous championship meeting; they didn't win their provincial titles; they weren't flagged by anybody as likely opponents in the final two months ago -- any wonder opinions are so sharply divided as to the destination of the 2010 All-Ireland football title?
Usually, there's some connection between All-Ireland finalists, but not in the case of Cork and Down, whose voyages to Croke Park have had few common stop-off points. Cork have been here before, only to have access to the control room blocked by Kerry in 2007 and 2009. Kerry also ejected them at the outer door in the 2005, '06 and '08 semi-finals, so the Cork squad that arrive onto Croke Park at 3.05 tomorrow know an awful lot about pain.
It's different for Down. Their adventure is only a few months old, having been planned off conflicting signposts in the Ulster semi-final against Tyrone. Precise, innovative and expansive for 20 minutes, they looked set to sail over new horizons, only for Tyrone to blow a heavy fog in their direction. By the time it had cleared, Down were on the rocks, watching the red and white disappear in the distance.
At that stage, Down were 80/1 to win the All-Ireland and had few takers at that. Five wins later, they are in the All-Ireland final, oozing traditional swagger, while their supporters remind all-comers that Down have never lost a final.
Cork travelled a similar qualifier route, all the time carrying the tag of a team that despite losing the Munster semi-final to Kerry, was fancied to be in Croke Park in September. That assessment was based on a consistency which has seen them lose to only Kerry in the championship since 2004.
There's a body of opinion -- one I share -- that their deeper roots will enable them to withstand whatever storm Down whip up. I base it on the belief that Down will be facing a higher level of opposition to what they encountered in the qualifiers, and All-Ireland quarter and semi-finals.
Down's quarter-final win over Kerry was impressive, but has to be seen in the context of a severely weakened opposition. Not even Kerry could afford to lose so many first-choice players and with some of their experienced players also misfiring, Down were good enough to exploit the openings.
The major doubt about Cork centres on whether they have more in the tank than has emerged thus far. Apart from some brief flourishes against Kerry, they haven't played as well as last year.
If that's corrected tomorrow, Cork will win, but obviously their fear is that they won't find that extra gear. At face value, they have everything going for them -- a large experienced squad, individuals with that little extra class, powerful physique and big day experience.
It's an imposing package, but why did it struggle against Limerick, Roscommon (for 40 minutes) and Dublin, whose lack of discipline in the final minutes probably cost them the game? If Conor Counihan has located the answer to that over the last few weeks, Cork will be on their way to a seventh All-Ireland crown.
Down have an exceptionally potent attacking triumvirate in Marty Clarke, Benny Coulter and Daniel Hughes, players who are well capable of performing under the most intense pressure.
However, there are enough doubts about Down's defensive security to suggest that if Cork reach full power they will score a winning total.
Last championship clash: Down 1-13 Cork 0-11 (1994 All-Ireland semi-final)
Odds: Cork 4/7 Down 15/8 Draw 8/1.
Cork -- A Quirke; E Cadogan, M Shields, R Carey; N O'Leary, G Canty, P Kissane; A O'Connor, A Walsh; C Sheehan, P O'Neill, P Kelly, D Goulding, D O'Connor, P Kerrigan.
DOWN -- B McVeigh; D McCartan, D Gordon, D Rafferty; D Rooney, K McKernan , C Garvey; P Fitzpatrick, K King; D Hughes, M Poland, B Coulter; P McComiskey, J Clarke, M Clarke.