Vincent Hogan: Masters of all they survey
Ryan hails players' nerve as Tipp lord it over Cork
After the silent season, comes the rumble of thunder out of Tipperary. The day was gun-metal grey and the hurling mightn't have been pitched quite to the highest esoteric taste, but Thurles still had a summer feeling. Tipp and Cork went at it like rutting stags for more than an hour, until the home boys eventually hit a kind of motorway cruising speed and slipped away over the horizon.
They looked beautiful at times, mildly distracted at others. There is a hair-trigger explosiveness to their forward line and, just as Cork scented hope, they ended up getting nuked. This is what Tipp do.
Cork's team selection was an acknowledgement of straitened circumstance and, for all of Denis Walsh's disappointment at conceding 1-4 in the last four minutes, he could appreciate the heat his team had summoned.
"In fairness, we were nothing coming into today's game in a lot of people's eyes," observed the Cork manager. "We found that embarrassing really, that we were considered nothing at all, maybe down in seventh place and that.
"We needed to perform. We didn't need to go blaming anyone or anything like that. We just needed to show what we could do. And I'd like to think we did that, but we still lost by seven points."
Maybe Tipp's story will be Cork's consolation now. A year ago exactly, they lost the corresponding fixture by 10 points in Pairc Ui Chaoimh and it was as if the defeat merely inflamed their belief.
They are masters of all they survey now and, for all the unevenness of yesterday's performance, Tipp still moved through the gears impressively. Seamus Callanan, for whom 2010 was a lost year, had two points on the board inside 12 minutes, the second a glorious, arcing strike from under the old stand.
He finished with the contented glow of a man hungry for the road ahead, five points scored and a notebook of assists.
"We knew Cork would have their patch," he said of the Rebels' seven-point rally between the 46th and 56th minutes. "But we never doubt ourselves. You can't get worried. We have leaders on the field everywhere. You don't look around for someone else to step up, you take the game by the scruff of the neck yourself. You have to believe.
"And we had a great response there, subs coming on to finish off the job when people ran out of steam."
Callanan, Lar Corbett, Eoin Kelly and Noel McGrath all hurl with such ease of eye and wrist, goals almost become inevitable. Their movement is a blur under the dropping ball, support troops running slingshot while the sliotar is in mid-descent. Defending against them must feel a bit like trying to stem an incoming tide.
This game was stuck in idle on 27 minutes when the impressive 'Bonner' Maher came jolting in off the left wing, offloaded to Corbett, and Donal Og Cusack couldn't have seen the sliotar pass, let alone repel it.
Four minutes later, Kelly out-fielded Shane O'Neill to a Shane McGrath delivery, torqued venomously infield and, brushing Brian Murphy aside, fired clinically home to Cusack's left. McGrath then added a work of art over his shoulder and, suddenly, Tipp were eight points clear and soaring.
This is their personality. Short, murderous bursts of hurling that becomes one lyric after another.
McGrath cut two lineballs over the bar yesterday and, with a seven-point lead at the break, Cork looked in for further heavy shelling. To their credit, they chose to be contrary.
That seven-point burst brought them level with 14 minutes left and, with Corbett now bailing a listing ship from the '40', Tipp had to dig deeper than was comfortable.
As the Thurles man read it, this was an inspection of the soul. "The boys showed great character and it's great to see that," said Corbett. "You don't really know where you are until you play championship hurling. We have the fellas to get a score when the team is under pressure. Questions were asked today and you know they were answered.
"I've never played a Cork team that didn't get a run on you, whether it's down in Cork or in Thurles. And, usually, when they get a run on you they drive it home and you mightn't get the result you want on the day.
"Eoin (Kelly) would have said it during the week, how the last three times we togged out against a Cork set-up, in the league and in the championship -- three times in 12 months -- we didn't get a result. So we were under no illusions going in today.
"Being favourites doesn't guarantee you anything. We were favourites going in last year and we got a lesson."
The kill shot came just as Cork hope was beginning to tingle.
They trailed by just two points as Eoin Cadogan came bullocking out from the Killinan goal. Seeing the sliotar safely in his possession, Walsh turned to the dugout to make a substitution. The explosion of noise startled him.
"Not doing an Arsene Wenger on it, but when I looked up, we had the ball coming out of defence," said Walsh. "I turned to one of the lads and, when I turned back, the ball was inside in the back of the net.
"So I didn't actually see it but, obviously, the ball was taken off Eoin."
'Bonner' Maher had been the thief, handpassing inside to Benny Dunne, who buried the decisive third goal. Thereafter, it was all grins and pirouettes from the All-Ireland champions.
Declan Ryan's first championship game in charge had decanted the perfect outcome. "I think the performance was fantastic and I'm very proud of all the players," he said in the dressing-room tunnel. "It's the culmination of a lot of work put in since January. The most pleasing thing about the game was that we held our nerve and didn't panic. I think it shows the character that's in this team."
Asked if, in his long championship career, he'd ever been on a team that scored 23 points and lost, Walsh sighed: "No, I don't think so. Look, we knew that we'd be fairly strong, it just depended on everybody performing.
"And I suppose, for the most part, we got that. The lads were heroic at times. If we were playing a lesser team today, I've no doubt we'd have pulled away. But, when the thing was in the melting pot, Tipp really drove on."
The past year stretching behind them, like a small eternity.