Wednesday 22 November 2017

Cork boosted by history of stifling Cats' goal machine

Eoin Larkin scores a crucial goal for Kilkenny during the corresponding fixture in 2008 - one of the few occasions the Cats have found the net against Cork during the Cody era.
Eoin Larkin scores a crucial goal for Kilkenny during the corresponding fixture in 2008 - one of the few occasions the Cats have found the net against Cork during the Cody era.
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

It doesn't tingle the spine or set the pulse racing with anticipation as it used to. Kilkenny and Cork, the oldest and most storied hurling rivalry of them all, has lost much of its lustre.

For Cork, the week is about clutching at straws, grabbing at anything they can, seeking solace from statistics if they are there to be sought.

However, look at this All-Ireland semi-final from any angle you want and you still arrive at the same, inevitable conclusion.

In recent interviews, even Sean Og O hAilpin and Donal Og Cusack have been unable to summon up enough conviction to put forward a decent case that they can win this game playing as they are.

You could never have said that about this fixture before.

Even two years ago, when they met in the corresponding fixture, with Kilkenny rumbling on ruthlessly to the three in a row, the suspicion still lurked that Cork could pull something from the archives.


Back then the Rebels were war-torn and railing against their manager Gerald McCarthy behind the scenes -- not something that was in the public domain at the time, it must be said.

History, pride and the nucleus of a very good team still in existence were all factored in and were all relevant until Eoin Larkin punched his way through the Cork defence for the game-breaking goal some 20 minutes in.

The curious thing is that Larkin's goal was one of only three Kilkenny have managed in five championship meetings with Cork during the managerial reign of Brian Cody.

That's three goals out of a staggering 104 scored on Cody's patch over the last 11 years.

Apart from Larkin, only Henry Shefflin in the 2003 All-Ireland final and Aidan Fogarty three years later breached the Cork defence with goals. The 1999 and 2004 All-Ireland finals drew goal blanks for both sides (0-13 to 0-12 in '99; 0-17 to 0-9 in '04).

When it comes to stifling the ruthless Kilkenny goal machine, nobody has been better equipped than the Rebels.

It's is a record Cork can be proud of and one which gives them just the slightest chink of hope on Sunday.

No other team can match that rate of concession against Cody's Kilkenny --it is the single biggest piece of artillery in their armoury, the ability to score killer goals.

"If you look at the amount of goals they have scored over the last number of years, unless you were going into games asleep, you'd obviously be aware of it," remarked Cusack.

In that respect, Cork have never been found napping. Cusack's magnificent shot-stopping, the ability of the venerable half-back line to compete aerially at puck-outs, the force of Diarmuid O'Sullivan and the snappy, disciplined marking of Brian Murphy -- and latterly Shane O'Neill -- in the corner have given them a far healthier concession rate than any of Kilkenny's other great rivals.

In three meetings since 2004, Waterford goalkeepers have picked the ball out of their own net in the company of Kilkenny forwards on eight occasions. The same number of games since 2002 for Tipperary have coughed up six goals.

Galway cut open an ailing Kilkenny defence most ruthlessly of all in the 2005 All-Ireland semi-final when they hit them for five goals, but they have been on the receiving end themselves, with 16 conceded in their six games since 2004.

The pace of change in personnel since that 2006 final has not been as quick for either team as it has been in other counties.

If, as expected, James 'Cha' Fitzpatrick is named ahead of the injured Michael Rice, and Aidan Fogarty dislodges Martin Comerford, 10 of the Cats team that started four years ago will start again on Sunday.

PJ Ryan, John Dalton, Michael Fennelly and T J Reid will be the players to infiltrate for James McGarry, Michael Kavanagh, Derek Lyng and Comerford. JJ Delaney was injured prior to that final and was replaced by Kavanagh.

Cork have naturally seen a much more extensive makeover. Pat Mulcahy and Diarmuid O'Sullivan have retired from the full-back line, while Timmy McCarthy, Neil Ronan, Brian Corcoran and Neil Ronan are gone from attack. However, depending on Jerry O'Connor's fitness there is still the potential for up to nine of that team, 11 of the players used on the day, to be involved on Sunday.

The rivalry has taken embittered twists in recent years, particularly in the spring of 2009 when Kilkenny's respected legend Eddie Keher criticised the striking Cork players opposed to McCarthy as having "no honour" in the game of hurling.

The atmosphere in Nowlan Park when a shadow Cork team arrived for the penultimate league game some weeks later told them everything they needed to know about how Kilkenny felt about them.

Cusack's "Stepford Wives" jibe in his autobiography was as complimentary as it was cutting, but all anyone has seen since is the cut.

Cork did get some small revenge for Nowlan Park when they won the league match earlier this year in Pairc Ui Chaoimh, but the scale of the challenge they now face is obvious, in the words of the Cork goalkeeper.

"People can be accused of talking up the opposition but the facts speak for themselves. They are going for five in a row and are one of the greatest teams ever to play the game," said Cusack.

"This is our third competition -- we lost the league final and the Munster final -- and it's a massive challenge, but as a sportsperson and a GAA player, where else would you want to be on Sunday?

"It's a cliche to talk up the opposition, but the reality is they'll be raging hot favourites going into the game. We're under no illusions about the challenge that awaits us."

Their record of security in the face of Kilkenny's goal slingers gives them faint hope.

Irish Independent

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