TODAY'S ALL-IRELAND SHC SEMI-FINAL PREVIEW
Cork v Kilkenny
Croke Park, 3.30
This is a needle match and one that has a certain fascination owing to their recent interloping histories, the writings of a certain goalkeeper, and the masochistic delight Kilkenny took in beating the daylights out of Cork in a league match during their troubled times of strife.
But there are more pressing affairs of state. Kilkenny are heading confidently towards five in a row. Since Brian Cody's arrival, Cork has been a recurring and, at times, infuriating motif, but Kilkenny have turned the screw and are now in the clear ascendancy. Not even Cork dispute that. But Cork, being Cork, refuse to concede the fight just yet.
On what grounds they expect to beat Kilkenny, aside from a traditional flair for upsetting the odds, is hard to see. They are pinning much hope on Aisake ó hAilpín having the kind of impact he had against Tipperary but his formline hasn't been steady and today he faces Noel Hickey, who is reputedly eating forwards in training.
ó hAilpín, if he manages to get pinpoint ball, has the reach. How he manages to disentangle himself from a heap of striped guards is the thing; and how he copes with Kilkenny's aggression.
There is some speculation that Cork may not line out as named and play Cian McCarthy at centre-forward. The Kilkenny centre-back Brian Hogan is to undergo a late fitness check on a finger injury but even if he fails to make it, Jackie Tyrrell is a ready-made and formidable replacement.
Already John Tennyson has had serious injury destroy his hopes of more hurling this year. But they have enviable cover and often the hurler coming in is so wound up to make his mark that it can actually improve the team's prospects. 'Cha' Fitzpatrick, named in the absence of Michael Rice, is a prime example.
Cork have concerns over Shane O'Neill, who went off injured in the Munster final replay and was a severe loss to the Rebels. He is named but may not start, with Shane Murphy on standby. Seán óg ó hAilpín has recovered fitness but has had a mixed season with injury and undulating form. A renowned perfectionist, it remains to be seen how these disruptions will impact on him.
Cork will feel reasonably confident of doing well defensively and putting it up to Kilkenny and also being a match in the middle of the field. It is the front six where the main worry lies. Niall McCarthy, who has had a good season, has a big job to tame Tommy Walsh, the lightning rod for the Kilkenny defence. Michael Cussen has not been playing well; Kieran Murphy and Patrick Horgan have both lacked consistency. Goals will be needed to spring a shock, but that part of the Cork game is largely muted. They need to endure, hang in, and hope that they can enter the last ten minutes with the game alive. Then it may be possible. But it will take one of the great Cork performances of all time.
Betting: Kilkenny 1/7; Cork 11/2; Draw 14/1.
-- DERMOT CROWE