A crossroads moment, one of those sometimes billed as a moment of truth, faced Cork hurlers in the Munster Championship against Waterford two years ago. Five weeks earlier Waterford, having skipped out of Division 1B, outplayed them in the league final and reheated the debate around Cork's head-wrecking inconsistency. Not just game-to-game inconsistency but within games themselves; half to half, quarter to quarter; they could change in the blink of an eye.
People who viewed Cork's near-miss in the 2013 All-Ireland final as some kind of starting point may now be more inclined to consider the All-Ireland semi-final a year later as the more instructive performance. Heading to Croke Park they felt everything was in place. Training had gone really well, they were clear of injuries. But they never showed up and Tipperary won in a canter. In the time since Tipperary have stolen their ground, won the All-Ireland, and they face Cork today already safely into the league's quarter-finals. The home county could, if they lose and other results don't go their way, end up in a relegation play-off.
Cork, who face Tipperary in this year's Munster Championship, still long for greater clarity. They continue to suffer the chequered line of form which beset them two seasons ago, in Jimmy Barry-Murphy's final season in charge. The opening win over Clare in this year's league brought an expectant crowd to Páirc Uí Rinn for the Dublin visit a week later. Dublin had been demolished by Tipp the weekend before, and were highly inexperienced. Cork started as expected, roared into an early lead, and then a Patrick Horgan free went yards to the right of the goalposts, inexplicably, and the game changed. By the end those Cork followers who hadn't left already were resorting to gallows humour to raise their spirits.
Two years ago, before the Munster Championship opener against Waterford, if there was any logic to Cork's form, any trace of a discernible pattern, it suggested that they would hit back. That good would follow bad and they would wreak their vengeance on their neighbours and right the wrongs of the league final. Instead, Waterford won again and Cork spun away into the qualifiers. They fought their way back to the All-Ireland quarter-finals, the last qualifier round bringing a rousing victory over Clare, but then the wheels came off again when Galway ransacked them in Thurles, the day Jonathan Glynn ran through for a goal with the aid of ridiculous Cork compliance.
"We didn't discuss it as a major topic but we weren't stupid, we could see a trend emerging," says Seanie McGrath, then a team selector, of their fluctuating form. "The one thing that Jimmy would have kept reinforcing, his mantra to the team at the time, was the importance of a good start, and having ferocious intensity and plenty of aggression and to try to get an early foothold in the game.
"I think to be fair to (current manager) Kieran (Kingston) now, the games that Cork have played well in, the last day in Walsh Park and the win over Clare, they were up for it from the first minute. Against Dublin they started really well but didn't go for the jugular and maybe Ryan O'Dwyer got a dubious enough goal, from a defensive point of view, and Dublin came back at them. The players seemed afraid to take chances and the crowd got on their case. And they did not play with any abandon."
McGrath sees the emergence of younger players like Luke Meade, Darragh Fitzgibbon, Mark Coleman and Shane Kingston, the latter introduced to the championship last year, as critical in offering the team fresh impetus. The management team under Kingston, embellished this year by John Meyler's arrival as coach, has not been afraid to make changes. Horgan was dropped after the Dublin defeat and has not started a league game since.
There have also been concerns at various stages over the form of Seamus Harnedy but McGrath sees these dips as temporary. "I think the experienced players have been getting a bit of a bad rap and people forget what they have done for Cork hurling. Patrick Horgan has done tremendous work for Cork hurling. In the four years I was there with Patrick I can't remember thinking he would not start. He was instrumental, showed great leadership on the field, even if he was not vocal in the dressing room. He played around 20 championship games over those four years and I can think of only three or four games that he did not play great in. He is an exceptional talent and plays well more often than not."
On the charge that he is not doing enough when he doesn't have the ball, McGrath stresses that it is not a reflection on the player's attitude. "If training was at seven he was down here at a quarter to six. I have never seen a fella train as hard, he showed an incredible appetite for work. After training you couldn't get him off the field. He has a style and I suppose an elegance and maybe he doesn't always throw himself into the tackle, but I think he offers enough to justify his inclusion. But at the end of the day Kieran will call it as he sees it.
"Harnedy has got what Cork needs. Skill, an eye for goal, and great aerial ability. Everything you need. I suppose for us again in the four years he came from nowhere, a junior club in 2013. And in '15 he was still performing admirably. Last year it probably dipped a little bit. But I think class is permanent. Seamus is in that top bracket. And I do know that he too is training extremely hard, and doing everything to get his form back. I have no doubt he will come back."
McGrath says that Dublin's performances since beating Cork have held up well enough to offer a more sympathetic view of Cork's failings that evening, without offering complete exoneration. "Outside of Tipp and Kilkenny I suppose Cork are not on their own when it comes to inconsistency. As regards winning an All-Ireland, I do think there is enough talent in Cork - enough skill and ability in the side, and great young fellas coming through. I definitely think Cork will challenge, I think they will be very competitive this year. And I do think there is an All-Ireland in Cork. With the present bunch and with some of the young lads coming through."
Cork last won the All-Ireland in 2005 which means that if they don't win it this year then they will have experienced the joint second longest stretch in history without being champions. The wait will then be 12 years, matching that which preceded their surprise win in 1966 with a young, unproven side. Their longest wait was 16 years, from 1903 to 1919, and they have never seen a decade when they didn't win one. Before 2011 there were similar historical comparisons being made about the Dublin footballers, who hadn't won an All-Ireland in 16 years. Three more failures would have equalled their worst ever drought. They haven't done too bad since.
Cork's win over Waterford has stirred hope again ahead of the meeting with Tipp but they are facing the best team in hurling today. "I think it is a very important game," says McGrath. "I wouldn't say it will define their season. But to make it mathematically safe (1A survival) and to get to a quarter-final would be huge compared to where Cork were last year."
In the last ten years Tipp have beaten Cork in seven out of eight championship meetings, the exception being Cork's shock win in 2010, after which Tipp won the All-Ireland. In last year's league they lost by 12 points to Tipp, their final league game before the relegation play-off. Their last league win over Tipp was in the opening round in 2013, when they won 0-26 to 1-11, with Horgan scoring 13 points, including ten frees, in Páirc Uí Rinn. Despite that Cork ended up being relegated, then a few months later reached the All-Ireland final. You never know what's coming next.
Sunday Indo Sport
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