Rebels rising on spring tide
Former team-mates point revived Cork towards rare league double
AFTER all the rows and acrimony which accompanied Cork into the early months of the last two years, this season has taken a significant turn for the better, leaving them well-positioned to win the National League hurling and football double for the first time since 1980.
It's all in marked contrast to 2009 when the footballers were in Division 2 and the hurlers were missing early-season games which wrecked their title chances.
Irrespective of how the footballers fare against Mayo in the final series of games on Sunday week, Conor Counihan has already steered them through to the final for the first time since 1999, while one win from their remaining two games against Tipperary and Galway would see the hurlers through to the final for the first time since 2002. They last won the title in 1998.
Denis Walsh, who was on the Cork squads that won the historic All-Ireland hurling and football double in 1990 (Counihan was on the football team), has presided over Cork's best start to the hurling League for years in which they have taken nine of a possible 10 points against Offaly, Limerick, Kilkenny, Waterford and Dublin.
Cork host Tipperary in Pairc Ui Chaoimh on Sunday where a win for Walsh's rapidly-improving squad would clinch a place in the final. And even if they lose, they could still book a place in the final by beating Galway in the last round on April 18.
It's all very different to a year ago this week when Cork hurlers were second last in Division 1 and preparing to head to Kilkenny where they took a 27-point trimming in one of the darkest days in their League history.
Walsh had just taken over as manager after the bitter rows of the previous months which ultimately led to Gerald McCarthy's resignation. Kilkenny showed no mercy in Nowlan Park, leaving Walsh under no illusions about the task which awaited him.
The footballers were doing better, admittedly in Division 2, but they still needed to beat Armagh in the final game to clinch promotion, which they duly did.
This time, the hurlers and footballers have lost just one of 11 Division 1 games between them, leaving the footballers as 4/9 favourites to win the title with the hurlers on 15/8 to be crowned champions.
"It's nice to see Cork getting headlines for the right reasons at this time of year. But from a football viewpoint, I certainly won't be getting carried away with things and I'm sure Denis feels the same with the hurlers," said Counihan.
He is a surprised and delighted to have secured a place in the football final after six of seven games in which the only defeat came against Tyrone.
"You would usually expect it to go down to the last day but things have worked out nicely for us. We've been a bit lucky in a way.
"We had close calls against Monaghan, Kerry, Galway and Derry but won them all. You need a bit of luck to win that many tight games. I suppose the only game we didn't get much luck was against Tyrone," he said.
Cork play Mayo on Sunday week and, unless Dublin beat Tyrone on the same day, will face John O'Mahony's men again two weeks later in what would be a first ever Cork-Mayo League final. If Mayo beat Cork and Dublin beat Tyrone in the final group games, it will be a Cork-Dublin final.
"We'll take whatever comes. The good thing is that we are giving plenty of lads chances in the league. I would be happy with what we've seen but it's still very early in the year.
"Having said that, we're delighted to be in the final. Cork haven't won the Division 1 title for a long time and, apart from that, the final will give us another big test before the championship. It's good to be going well but we all know that the serious stuff comes from June on," said Counihan.
It arrives earlier for the hurlers who play Tipperary in the Munster quarter-final on May 30 which makes Sunday's warm-up all the more intriguing.
Both camps are playing down its significance in terms of providing a championship pointer but the rest of the hurling world will be keeping a close watch on what will be a high-intensity clash.
Of course, it's possible that Cork and Tipperary could also meet in the League final.
If Tipperary win their last two games and Cork beat Galway in their last outing, it would be a Tipp-Cork League final on May 2.
Galway, who are currently in second place, a point behind Cork and one ahead of Tipperary, are also in a strong position going into the final stages as they have their last two games against Dublin and Cork at home in Pearse Stadium.