By John Horgan
All-Ireland SHC, quarter-final
Waterford V Cork
Thurles, Sunday , 2pm
A FAMILIAR pairing on a major championship Sunday with the stakes as high as they have ever been over the past decade.
This All Ireland quarter-final is equally as difficult to predict as any of their previous encounters and, in keeping with recent history, it will be a huge surprise if there is anything more than a puck of a ball dividing them at around half three next Sunday.
Don’t even mention the league encounter between the counties last February, that is an irrelevance where this game is concerned.
All league games are when the championship reaches the business end, they stand for nothing and, whilst Waterford were hammered by Cork on that Saturday night in February, they are probably the slight favourites going into this latest showdown.
That perception is based on the fact that Cork have not lowered their colours in a championship outing since 2006, the wonderful All Ireland semi-final of that year and the sides have met five times in the interim period.
So if Waterford hurling might have had an inferiority complex in the past about their Munster neighbours, they certainly don’t now.
Waterford have played a championship game less than Cork and in both games, against Clare in the Munster semi-final and against Tipperary in the final, they gave a very good account of themselves.
Beating Clare was a huge, psychological boost for a team that had its share of difficulties earlier in the year when league wins were very hard to come by and their status as a Division One team was seriously threatened.
Two selectors folded up their tents and there was no great optimism around the county before the meeting with Clare.
But they came through a searching test that day before pushing Tipp hard for the best part of the Munster final.
They are certainly in a much better place at this juncture in the year than they were 12 months ago when they faced Galway on the back of an almighty pasting by Tipp in the provincial final.
The fact that they re-grouped after that defeat to beat Galway in the All Ireland quarter-final spoke volumes for the players and what Cork are facing on Sunday is a group that are battle hardened by great victories and painful losses over the past few years.
The reality of the situation is that Waterford have accomplished much more than Cork have in recent years and the perception that Cork will win comfortably on Sunday is off the rails completely.
Cork could have, maybe should have beaten Tipp this year but attaching a whole pile of significance to that might be foolish because in the past number of years they have beaten the Premier County in 2010, ran them very close on other occasions and then were unable to replicate those displays further on.
Aside from the league final, it has been a decent campaign for Cork and, whilst the intensity levels might not have reached great heights against Offaly and Wexford, the job, in both instances, was done without all that much bother.
Jimmy Barry Murphy and his selectors have done as good a job as any bunch of people could have done and they have constructed a squad of players that are definitely the best in the county right now.
Changes have been made again to the starting 15, this time three, Stephen McDonnell regaining his full-back berth in place of Damien Cahalane, Sean Og O’hAilpin coming in at left half-back in place of William Egan and Daniel Kearney from Sars starting for the first time in the championship at midfield.
Those changes brook little argument and it was plainly obvious that they were required in those positions because enough wasn’t done by the three they are replacing the last day against Wexford.
Some might suggest that bringing back O’hAilpin into the championship arena is a gamble because he hasn’t started in that environment since the disastrous All Ireland semi-final of 2010 against Kilkenny.
But you are talking about one of the most diligent hurlers in the country here, whose fitness levels are second to none and if Tony Browne can do it for Waterford at 39 then the Na Piarsaigh man can do it at 34.
One of the big concerns of the selectors is the fact that too many scores are being conceded in games and that is now being addressed by the recall of Sean Og and McDonnell at full-back.
Kearney is very highly thought of and has done well in training whereas Lorcan McLoughlin wasn’t consistent enough in his outings.
As always there will be key areas on Sunday and none more so than the battle between the Waterford half-backs of Browne, ‘Brick’ Walsh and Kevin Moran against Conor Lehane, Cian McCarthy and Niall McCarthy.
The Waterford trio bring a great physicality to their game and that will have be fully matched by their opponents with the Carrigtwohill man a major figure.
Maurice Shanahan is playing his best hurling this year and Tom Kenny must put down a marker where he is concerned right from the off.
It is almost certain that John Mullane will be greeted by Brian Murphy before the whistle while McDonnell must get a good start against Shane Casey.
Seamus Prendergast’s ball winning on the forty is a problem for a lot of teams but Eoin Cadogan is around long enough now to be able to counteract that by getting in his say first.
Luke O’Farrell’s confidence will be sky high after his 2-2 against Wexford but the management will look for greater consistency over the seventy minutes from Paudie O’Sullivan and Patrick Horgan.
Cork finished well against Offaly and Wexford but this is a far sterner test now and it will reveal everything about the progress graph of the team.
Even in defeat the best Cork performance this year came against Tipperary in the Munster semi-final and maybe there might have been a slight hint of complacency against Offaly and Wexford but there certainly won’t be now.
Cork are probably due a championship win over Waterford but it will only come if the performance level against Tipp is matched and upped another notch.
That will mean at least 12 of the team performing at their maximum and a greater consistency all round.
If it is in the pot with ten minutes to go Cork might have the legs in the key areas and with probably a stronger bench they should be good enough.
Verdict : cork.