Light going out for Cork stars
There are few better sights in a championship summer than the sea of red at the town end in Semple Stadium on a hurling Sunday.
Cork and Tipperary have a storied history at the venue and the sight of the Confederate, Canadian and just about every other flag with a tinge of red in it fluttering in the breeze on the town terrace can be one of the snapshots of an Irish sporting season.
But many of those flags may be decommissioned come Sunday when the counties renew their rivalry.
If the suggestions of poor advance ticket sales among Cork supporters are accurate -- an estimate of just 3,000 was in the public domain yesterday -- then the love affair between the support and the team appears to have waned.
Rarely can a trip to Thurles for a Munster championship match with Tipperary have propagated so little interest in Leeside so far.
The slow sales in Cork have not influenced Munster Council officials into predicting dramatic slumps in the crowd for Sunday's showpiece. Some 36,827 attended the same fixture 12 months ago, a rise on the 35,102 in 2009 and they confidently expect more than 30,000 to show up. But Cork indifference will still be noted at the turnstiles.
Is it a simple matter of economics? Do they feel that they are being priced out of big games regardless of the packages on offer.
Or is there something more than that? Cork hurling has existed comfortably beside a strong football team before, so the argument that Cork's footballing success last September is impacting heavily is easily countered. Still it must be having some effect and when players like Aidan Walsh and Ciaran Sheehan devoted all their time to the senior footballers last year and overlooked an U-21 hurling campaign.
The feeling is that the apathy stems from a lack of belief within the squad itself, not so much in their own ability but in the direction the team is heading.
The clock, it seems, is running down on another season before a championship ball has been pucked and talk of retirements at the end of the season has been circulating freely.
Rather than raise their heads above the parapet again, those with an eye on the door are more likely to think 'what's the point' and move on.
That state of mind appears to be contributing to the current lull. There is a quiet acceptance that Cork are nowhere near challenging for an All-Ireland title, and even a Munster title may be beyond their grasp.
In an order of merit, the best they could probably hope for is to jump above Dublin again in people's minds, if the Dubs' progress was to stall. Tipp, Kilkenny, Waterford and Galway appear to have slipped beyond their horizon.
In the background, the ushering out the door of Sean Og O hAilpin must also be a factor. When O hAilpin was invited to the Rochestown Park Hotel last October for a debrief, it took just a handful of minutes to end his inter-county career there and then.
But if it was a portent for seismic change it didn't materialise. It looked a strange decision then and it still looks a strange decision now on the eve of Cork's first championship match. Was it really necessary to remove a player of his stature and commitment and are the benefits of that decision obvious now? The answer must be 'no' to both questions.
Against that is the right of a manager to make such calls and that must be respected too. Denis Walsh observed all protocols in coming to his decision regardless of the rights and wrongs of it.
Most likely it will be the epitaph for Walsh's time in charge of the Cork hurling team.
When he came in, the quietly-spoken, studious former dual player carried no baggage from the previous rifts and promised a clean start.
Now, in his third season, signs of progress must become evident. He is no longer the facilitator at the tail-end of a peace process.
What Walsh can't legislate for is the poor quality of underage hurling in the county in recent years, a state amplified by the recent minor defeat to Tipperary.
Some strong fundamental arguments have been made about Cork hurling, that lack of underage success (no All-Ireland U-21 title since 1998, no All-Ireland minor title since 2001) being the obvious one.
Walsh used 32 players in a league campaign where the emphasis was clearly on giving game time away at the expense of a greater cutting edge.
The trawl did not throw up much, as last night's team reflected, but Stephen McDonnell is one who got wrapped up in the nets while William Egan, introduced as a midfielder in last year's championship, is the chief beneficiary from the decision to cast O hAilpin out to grass.
Cussen was thought to be close to making the team as a target man a full forward last night and that is perhaps the most divisive point in terms of team selection.
He has apparently played well in recent challenges but some of his performances in the league did not mark him down as a player who was adapting to inter-county hurling quickly enough. In the three games that he started against Kilkenny, Tipp and Wexford he was taken off.
The absence of O hAilpin, Ronan Curran (through injury) Jerry O'Connor, Cathal Naughton and Tom Kenny from the starting team sheet suggests a changing of the guard, but the changes are not overly exciting anyone on Leeside -- 1999 and JBM against Waterford it is unlikely to be.
In the past few years there have been 'causes' to this fixture -- the post-strike reactions in 2008 and '09 brought some reaction, while the desire to avoid a third successive defeat 12 months ago was always a priority.
But now the sense of cause is missing. For too many, the light may have gone out.