THOUGH it will take an incredible upsurge in form for Cork to be still hurling in September, their path to the All-Ireland is at least now clear.
Jimmy Barry-Murphy and his side may not have got too many breaks against Tipp in the Munster semi-final, but the qualifiers have been kind so far. Offaly, Wexford and now Waterford.
That’s not to put the Déise in the same bracket as Offaly and Wexford. Far from it. They might have bottled a couple of big games under Justin McCarthy in the noughties, but Waterford have achieved far more than Cork since the epic 2006 All-Ireland semi-final.
Many expected that one-point defeat to signal the end of a glorious modern era for the Rebels’ rivals. Instead the opposite was the case.
From 2007 to this season, Cork and Waterford have met five times in championship, two were draws with the Déise winning the other three games. The Rebels have only even managed one league victory, earlier this spring at Páirc Ui Rinn, in that spell.
Waterford have twice lifted the Munster title since ‘07, three times come runners-up, captured the league, appeared in one All-Ireland final and five consecutive All-Ireland semi-finals. The individual brilliance of the likes of John Mullane and Brick Walsh is reflected in 12 All-Star awards.
Contrast that with Cork’s two, dismal, All-Ireland semi-final showings, the Munster final defeat in 2010, two league final losses and single All-Star — Ben O’Connor in ‘08 — and there is no reason for Leeside cockiness over the next couple of weeks.
However there is cause for relief. An All-Ireland quarter-final against a hurting Kilkenny would have been a grim prospect.
Victory over Waterford in Thurles on Sunday week, would send the Rebels into an All-Ireland semi-final against Galway on August 12. Unless Limerick pull off a shock and defeat Kilkenny, in which case a draw would be required to decide whether Limerick or Cork would take on Tipp in a rematch.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though (and on the evidence of the Leinster final and last year’s qualifier in the Gaelic Grounds, Cork would struggle to put it up to Galway). There was little in the performance against Wexford, especially when compared with a brave showing by the Déise against Tipp yesterday, to mark Cork down as All-Ireland contenders.
The major concern is at the back, where sloppy defending — and it’s worth noting lack of cover from midfield and half-forward when opposition runners drive up the field — leave Cork vulnerable.
The rearguard is unsettled, with Damien Cahalane handed his debut on Saturday, and while he showed flashes of the aggressive style that made Diarmuid O’Sullivan a colossus, his lack of experience was very evident. Stephen McDonnell has been jettisoned after starting all the league games bar one, but Cahalane is now in a key position having only played once in the spring.
Of course it’s not helping that Shane O’Neill and William Egan, who has had a hectic year to date with UCC Fitzgibbon Cup demands and it’s showing, aren’t hurling with confidence and consistency.
At least Brian Murphy and Eoin Cadogan were quite impressive against Wexford, though I believe Conor O’Sullivan was harshly dropped after solid showings against Tipp and Offaly and should be re-instated for Waterford.
Murphy will pick up John Mullane and Cadogan will be on Seamus Prendergast, a monster in the air yesterday, in the quarter-final. Those duels could be match-winning, but Shane Walsh’s sharp touches and movement will really test Cahalane.
Lorcán McLoughlin is probably going to be replaced by Darren Sweetnam for the quarter-final, who himself was axed over the weekend, but whoever partners Pa Cronin in midfield must cover more ground, and one of the midfielders need to act as a sweeper around the half-back line. Stephen Molumphy excels in that role for Waterford.
What about the attack? Even in posting a serious tally of 3-24 — and wracking up 74 points in three games to date — there is room for improvement. Luke O’Farrell was dynamic and direct at full-forward, but decision making is costing Cork goals, with Paudie O’Sullivan taking up great positions without getting passes twice against Wexford.
Niall and Cian McCarthy are muscular ball winners and that will be vital against the Déise, where Brick Walsh and Kevin Moran are extremely physical half-backs.
Conor Lehane could find himself up against wily Tony Browne, heading to 40 years of age and still hurling up a storm. Lehane slammed over 0-7 from play in the league game in a sensational debut. He hasn’t replicated that form this summer, but he’s progressing well for a 20-year-old, scoring in every game, and this will be chance to make a real mark.
JBM revealed after the game on Saturday that an All-Ireland quarter-final was a minimum requirement this season. To show the Rebels really are going in going in the right direction, they need to make the semi — and deliver a serious performance at that juncture.
First though we’ll settle for a victory over the Déise. It’s overdue.
Talking Points from Thurles
1. GOALS: The selection of Luke O’Farrell at full-forward led to three goals, and with better decision-making up front in general, Cork could have had a few more. Luke is the only Rebel attacker who – like Kilkenny forwards – thinks goals.
It helped Anthony Nash nailed his penalty, joining Neil Ronan and Pat Horgan as penalty scorers over the past decade.
Cork have now converted four of their last 11 penalties into goals.
2. THE BEST 15: Cork are clearly in transition given the changes in key positions over three games. We’ve had two different starting full-backs, centre-backs, centre-forwards and full-forwards, plus three midfielders.
Plus Damien Cahalane played one league game and Chris Joyce none. The question being asked is what’s Cork’s strongest starting line-up?
And are the management convinced they’ve a team to challenge the best and make the All-Ireland?
3. GARDINER: Cork are unsettled – they’ve used 23 players in championship so far – but John Gardiner still hasn’t featured. Even Séan Óg, six years his senior, was introduced to rousing applause on Saturday.
Gardiner hasn’t been consistently impressive since 2010, but was decent in the league final.
It didn’t matter against Offaly or Wexford, but he could have made a difference against Tipp. Supporters are wondering why he’s so out of favour with management.