Cork v Kilkenny: Love-hate rivals who simply love to hate
Events over the last decade have soured relations between Cork and Kilkenny, writes Damian Lawlor
THREE weeks ago, Donal óg Cusack travelled to Dublin for a promotional launch and used the occasion to lavish praise on today's All-Ireland semi-final opponents Kilkenny. In fact, the Cork goalkeeper couldn't have been more generous in his appreciation of them.
"It's D-Day" he said, referring to this afternoon's game. "Everything stops -- I don't know can you get yourself any more ready than that. You have to give Kilkenny credit; they've taken the game to a new level. They've become comfortable playing the game at such an intensity that other teams can't match it.
"Teams are able to live with them for 20 or 25 minutes because there's a certain amount of adrenalin there -- but they aren't able to go toe to toe with them for 70 minutes. They've become very comfortable playing at that intensity."
It's all a far cry then from last year. Just pick up a copy of Come What May, Donal óg's compelling autobiography and you won't have to flick too far to gauge what the Cork lads really think of Kilkenny. The book ruffled a lot of feathers in the Marble County. As recently as last week, Eddie Keher spoke about it, saying he "wouldn't touch it with a 40-foot pole".
On the second page, Cusack writes: "We were born as a team, in the public's minds anyway, 10 years ago in an All-Ireland final against Kilkenny. A bunch of kids who came out of nowhere. Cork hadn't even been in an All-Ireland for nine years. And on a greasy day we beat the odds and won. Everyone said we were a fine thing to happen the game of hurling.
"And we have grown up in the rivalry with these fellas and their black and amber colours and their tradition which they hold up against ours every now and then to measure their worth. We've grown up and grown apart from them. Now? We are the trouble makers, the unforgiven, the outlaws. They are the men you'd want your daughters to marry."
A once respectful relationship first soured after the 2002 league final. The GPA wanted the finalists to make a gesture on welfare issues and with an infamous first domestic strike looming, Cork were fully behind them. They assumed Kilkenny would be too.
But on the night before the league final, Cusack received a call from Kilkenny skipper Andy Comerford telling him there would be no co-operation in the protest. Comerford did his best to convince his team-mates, but to no avail. And so, the Cork players went out on a limb, ignored the concerns of their own management team and made a symbolic gesture in front of 25,000 people in Thurles. Kilkenny kept their heads down and won the game.
The Cork players were furious and took even greater exception to an interview that Kilkenny centre-back Peter Barry, the most inoffensive of characters, gave after the game. "As long as I have a Kilkenny jersey on my back, I'm delighted," Barry said. "Lads can say what they like about different things, but the honour of wearing this jersey is huge, and the majority of the lads feel the same. That's what it's all about, putting on the jersey."
Cusack later revealed that Barry explained that his comments were taken out of context, but at the time the Rebel camp was furious.
"We've made different journeys," Cusack wrote. "We struggled and Kilkenny left us out there to walk our path alone. Through all the troubles we have had we have often thought how much easier and how much more effective for all players this would be if Kilkenny and Cork were marching together. Fine, let's flake each other on the field but let's pull together off it."
Later on, he added: "The more disorder there is in Cork, the more Kilkenny is thought of fondly as the land of milk, honey and contentment. The GAA's version of the Stepford Wives." It was a classic rebuke to a team that Cusack felt existed in an idyllic and submissive world while the Cork team went to the trenches for the rights of inter-county players all over the country.
Cusack also pointed out that Kilkenny players benefited from the GPA, winning cars and lucrative TV and promotional campaigns but put little or nothing back into the players' group.
Over the years, it's been increasingly obvious that these players don't have much time for each other. The recent collection of Cork memoirs and books gives a strong indication of the southerners' feelings. Kilkenny, typically, have remained a lot more understated, but on All Star and interprovincial trips there hasn't been any real interaction between the two counties.
We'll see today what bite is left; the All-Ireland champions are so far ahead of the chasing pack that the rivalry has become diluted. It's as if there's a sense of inevitability about this latest game. Former Kilkenny captain Denis Byrne, who lost to Cork in the 1999 All-Ireland final, said as much last week. He feels that Kilkenny are simply too far ahead for tension to be a real factor.
"The Cork team then ('99) was a lot better than it is now. They wouldn't hold a candle to that team. The bones of that Cork team won three All-Irelands and they would have won a few more if they weren't on strike. They had also come off the back of All-Ireland under 21 success, but when is the last time they won an underage All-Ireland? Underage there is gone down an awful lot and soccer and rugby have been making serious inroads. Kilkenny are strong in comparison and have won several under 21 All-Irelands in recent times."
Many share Byrne's view that Kilkenny will cruise home today. Cusack knows how far behind the posse are and openly acknowledges what Kilkenny have achieved.
He shook hands with Henry Shefflin after losing to Kilkenny by 27 points in last year's league and recalling the exchange, wrote: "He looked me in the eye and most of what he was saying to himself was, 'There you go now Cusack, 27 points. Take that home with ya'. He knew. I knew. They had put us away. Made their statement. It was his moment. I just had to say to him, 'You're a great team'. And fuck it, they are a great team. Somehow, in the last 10 years, they have got away from us."
There's simply no denying that. In the 2004 All-Ireland final, Cork beat the Cats by eight points. Two years later, however, Kilkenny reversed that result, winning by three points and the gap was out to six points by the time they beat Cork in the 2008 All-Ireland semi-final.
Indeed, since Cork's last victory, they've endured wildly different fortunes. Kilkenny, unbeaten for nearly five years, have clocked up 20 straight championship wins and today target their 11th final in 13 years. The Rebels, meanwhile, have had two strikes and eight summer defeats since '05.
Last January, in an interview with this newspaper, Seán óg ó hAilpín reflected on the gulf that has wedged the two teams apart. "We always knew that Kilkenny were
up there, but did we envisage after 2004 and '05 that they would win the four-in-a-row? No, we didn't. They blew us out of it and they're basically looking down on us and the others. More than anyone, Kilkenny handle history well and they have the incentive of going for the five-in-a-row which has never been done before."
That will be a huge motivation today for Cork, who stopped Kilkenny from a three-in-a-row in 2004. Especially as the Cats stopped them from doing it in 2006.
"They're the best team in the country by a mile," ó hAilpín said more recently. "You don't want to meet them at the semi-final stage but you have to meet the best some time. And to be honest we're happy enough to get a crack at them to try and stop the five-in-a-row. It would be great to have that on your CV. Everyone remembers the Offaly players of '82. Matt Connor, the Lowrys. They were great footballers but they're even more famous because they were the ones who stopped Kerry's five-in-a-row. Who scored the winning goal? Seamus Darby. Common knowledge in GAA circles."
Many players have moved on from both set-ups in recent years to be replaced by young hurlers who mightn't be as aware of the baggage between the teams. Players like Shane O'Neill may have little experience of Kilkenny at senior level, but they won't need to be told what lies in store for them today.
"I played them at minor and that was a massive step up," O'Neill says. "Just before half-time, they really stepped it up, scoring 1-5 very quickly. That's been the hallmark of any Kilkenny team recently. If they get the chance to put you away, they're ruthless. Every Kilkenny team brings serious intensity to the game. You're not really going to be able to even catch a breath."
Some reckon the gap between the teams is now so wide that there can't be the same degree of contention between them. And with new personnel like O'Neill, Pat Horgan, Paudie O'Sullivan and Richie Hogan, John Mulhall and Richie Power, there might not be the same bitterness either. Especially with the Leinster side streets ahead in the minds of most hurling folk.
"When the ball's thrown in, the favourites' tag won't count for much," says Cork captain Kieran 'Fraggy' Murphy. "It's all about who performs best and is better prepared, who's mentally right coming into it. The better team will win."
That will probably be Kilkenny. But not all the water's under the bridge just yet. Expect Cork to put up one hell of a fight to try and turn the tide back in their direction.