Full-strength rebels will push Kilkenny all the way
SOMETHING isn't quite right here. Cork are 11/2 to win tomorrow's All-Ireland hurling semi-final while Kilkenny are 1/7. If those odds are any reflection of the relative merits of the teams, then Kilkenny will win by an embarrassingly wide margin. That's not going to happen.
Down (3/1) and Dublin (5/2) tore large chunks out of the football form book to win last weekend, and while Kilkenny tend to fit tight security to the hurling equivalent they will still realise that there's a distinct possibility of facing an ambush.
Cork are going into the game in the ideal situation. They are unfancied outside their own camp so there's no weight of expectation. Also, they are able to field their best team now that Shane O'Neill and Sean Og O hAilpin are back to full fitness.
And then there's the historical dimension, which shows that Cork-Kilkenny games can take on an unpredictable life of their own, irrespective of the background.
Over the years, several theories have been put forward as to how to best reduce Kilkenny's capacity to generate the huge levels of momentum that usually wear teams down.
During Anthony Daly's time with Clare, they did it effectively once or twice by playing an extra defender but it still didn't beat Kilkenny.
Other theories have been advanced too, including targeting particular Kilkenny players, but, since 2005, none of them have worked.
That's why Cork's best chance of pulling off a big surprise tomorrow rests within their own game.
Concentrate on getting it right and hope it's enough to see you through. Cork would never have any doubts about their ability to win a game, even one against such a successful force as Kilkenny.
Luckily for Denis Walsh, he is able to field their best team with the return of O'Neill and Sean Og a major boost.
O'Neill is one of the top corner-backs in the game and while Sean Og might not be quite the force he was at his peak, he's a big-day performer.
One of the areas where teams have repeatedly struggled against Kilkenny has been in the aerial duels. Kilkenny are superb in the air, with Tommy Walsh -- who is not exactly their tallest man -- possibly the best of the lot.
Tipperary were one of the few who managed to match Kilkenny in the air; they did so in last year's All-Ireland final but still couldn't quite see the job through.
Still, it made life an awful lot more difficult for Kilkenny than they had been used to.
Cork will have noticed that, so expect them to use the giant figures of Michael Cussen and Aisake O hAilpin as target men in attack.
Niall McCarthy is having a very good season too, which increases Cork's aerial power.
Patrick Horgan and Ben O'Connor will lie in close to Aisake, hoping for breaks around the Kilkenny goal, something that Galway and Dublin failed to do in the Leinster championship.
Cork's championship season so far has been mixed. They were brilliant against Tipperary, functional against Limerick, sloppy against Waterford after going five points clear at the three-quarter stage of the drawn game, and out-manoeuvred in the replay, before returning to a decent level of efficiency against Antrim.
Now they are moving into seriously tough terrain, but must remain true to their instincts to give themselves a good chance of survival.
As for Kilkenny, they have yet to be seriously tested in the five-in-a-row bid. They had plenty to spare everywhere against Dublin and had Galway well-beaten from early on.
At full power, they are better than Cork. But the question arises -- how long can they remain at such a remarkably high level?
They have very skilfully managed to deflect the five-in-a-row attention to one side, something no other county would have achieved if they were lucky enough to be in that position.
That ability to retain an ordinary attitude while doing the most extraordinary things is -- next to their talent -- Kilkenny's strongest asset.
Brian Cody deserves enormous credit for presiding so cleverly over such a regime.
They have avoided the pitfalls into which so many other successful teams have fallen, leaving Kilkenny well-placed to write themselves into history.
Kilkenny are different to other teams in that they tend to attack their opponents' stronger areas rather than concentrating on the more vulnerable departments.
I would expect them to put real pressure on John Gardiner, who is a crucial link in the Cork chain.
If you play loosely around Gardiner, he'll do serious damage off breaking ball. But you'll find that Kilkenny will drive at him, trying to force him to concentrate totally on defensive duties, thus limiting his impact in an attacking sense.
There's no doubt this game is Kilkenny's to lose.
They have a better team and will be driven by a massive determination to take themselves within one step of history.
The biggest danger is that the law of averages decides to choose tomorrow as the day to intervene.
Once the gods interfere, there's nothing even the likes of Tommy Walsh, Henry Shefflin, Jackie Tyrrell and JJ Delaney can do. Mind you, the gods will need to be at the top of their game to dislodge Kilkenny. So too will Cork.
Will it happen? Probably not. Denis Walsh will have Cork primed for a huge effort, which should sustain them most of the way, but Kilkenny have the power to take them through on the home stretch.