Monday 18 December 2017

Cork are certainly now the real deal

Noel Horgan

There is no disputing that Cork will head into next Sunday's All Ireland semi-final in a more positive frame of a mind for a championship encounter with Tipperary than has been the case for quite some time.

On the face of it, the Rebels' record since Jimmy Barry-Murphy took the helm two years ago looks more impressive than Tipp's, given that this will be their third consecutive semi-final appearance.

Tipp, for their part, failed to win a championship game last year, losing to Limerick in the Munster semi final before going under to Kilkenny in their first outing in the qualifiers. Having succumbed to the Cats in the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final, it meant their losing sequence was extended to four games after they again made their exit from the Munster championship at the hands of Limerick this year.

Trailing by six points with 18 minutes remaining in their next assignment against Galway, it seemed as if Tipp's season was again destined to end prematurely, but they staged a remarkable recovery to run out winners by 3-25 to 4-13.

They followed that up with a couple of facile victories over Offaly and Dublin, which means they will carry considerable momentum into the historic meeting with their age-old rivals at Croker on Sunday.

It will be the first championship clash between the counties since 2012 when Tipp came through by just a point at Pairc Uí Chaoimh. That was Cork's first championship match under Jimmy Barry-Murphy's stewardship since the Leeside legend brought the curtain down on his initial tenure in 2000.

He had served four years back then, guiding Cork out of the doldrums to All-Ireland glory in 1999 with a team that was built on the back of consecutive All-Ireland Under 21 triumphs in 1997 and 1998.

He faced a similar situation two years ago, as Cork were ranked a bit behind the three top teams, Kilkenny, Tipp and Galway, at the time, and, in view of a dearth of under-age success in the preceding years, the consensus was that he was going to find it much more difficult to work the oracle again.

Getting to within a point of Tipp in 2012 was viewed as a creditable achievement by Cork, notwithstanding the fact they enjoyed a numerical advantage for most of the second half. Their elimination by Galway in the All Ireland semi-final that year, however, appeared to confirm that they had some way to go before hopes of a return to the top could be seriously entertained.

Remarkably, they almost got there last year, bouncing back from a Munster final defeat by Limerick to advance to the showpiece at the expense of Kilkenny and Dublin in turn, but not everyone was convinced they would make a similar impact this season.

The victories over Kilkenny and Dublin were facilitated to a certain extent by the fact that the opposition had a player sent off at critical stages of both games. It's quite conceivable they would have prevailed in any case, and maybe they would have beaten Limerick in the Munster final had not Patrick Horgan been sent off shortly before half time, but the two games against Clare in the All Ireland final showed that Cork weren't quite the complete package just yet.

They came within a whisker of winning the first one, but Clare were clearly the better team overall on the day, and, while Cork raised their performance in the replay, it wasn't enough to prevent the Banner from registering a merited victory.

It goes without saying that Cork made great strides last year, but it was felt that further improvement would be required if they hoped to consistently challenge for championship silverware. With Kilkenny and Tipperary expected to come strongly back into the reckoning, and Davy Fitzgerald's richly-talented and tender-aged Clare side expected to be even more formidable, it was easy to appreciate why Cork weren't especially fancied to go all the way at the start of the year.

A stuttering start in the championship against Waterford, when they had to come from nine points behind to salvage a draw, did nothing to boost Cork's rating, but they have really blossomed since then.

They thrashed Waterford in the replay, turned in a superb display to finish unflattering five-point winners over Clare in the Munster semi-final before coming through a stiff test from Limerick in the provincial decider.

After over two years of painstaking work trying to develop the panel and strengthen the team, it seems as if JBM and his co-mentors Kieran Kingston, Seanie McGrath and Johnny Crowley have finally got all the pieces to fall into place.

All-Star Seamus Harnedy was the find of the season in 2013, and the input from newcomers Alan Cadogan, Aidan Walsh, Mark Ellis and Bill Cooper has done much to hasten Cork's progress this year, while Paudie O'Sullivan's return to the fold after being sidelined with an injury for the past 12 months has added further depth to the squad.

O'Sullivan, who scored the goal that sealed Cork's win in the Munster final, could be in line to get his first start at full forward this year if, as seems likely, team skipper Pa Cronin is ruled out by injury on Sunday.

It's a measure of how much the team has evolved since the previous championship collision with Tipp two years ago that only Cronin, Anthony Nash, Shane O'Neill, Lorcan McLoughlin, Conor Lehane and Patrick Horgan from the starting fifteen that day lined out in this year's Munster final.

In light of what they have produced en route to claiming a Munster title for the first time since 2006, Cork certainly look the real deal now, and taking on Tipp will hold no fear for them at this stage.

It isn't going to be easy to bring down Eamonn O'Shea's men, and the indications are that, with Kilkenny put to the pin of their collar to get over Limerick last weekend, there's little or nothing between the three teams still standing in the race for the big prize.

It will probably all come down to whichever side gets the little rub of the green on Sunday, but perhaps it's a favourable omen for Cork that in their only previous meeting with Tipp outside of the Munster championship they came out on top in a qualifier in Killarney before going on to win the All-Ireland in 2004.


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