GIVEN a choice, any team in the All-Ireland Hurling Championship would take the shortest route possible to the final in Croke Park.
For the counties that avoided a quarter-final in either Munster or Leinster, the path to the final was clearcut.
Win your provincial semi-final and final and it was just one game more in the All-Ireland semi-final to participate on the biggest day of the lot, four games in total.
Waterford in Munster and Galway and Kilkenny in Leinster can win the All- Ireland by playing just four games as they avoided a provincial quarter-final.
Limerick, if they get to the final, will have played an extra game against Clare.
For the remaining unbeaten contenders, the longer journey must be embarked upon but that might not militate against them either. History has illustrated to us that losing in the province can work in your favour and there have been quite a few examples of that. Of course, the most recent example was only last year with Tipperary. They got trounced in the Munster final by Limerick but a few months later were collecting the McCarthy Cup.
In fact, Tipperary are masters at being successful after having to take the alternative journey.
Cast your mind back to a great day for Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh 10 years’ ago when the home team ripped Tipp apart, led by Aisake Ó hAilpín. Tipp who had the last laugh, came through the qualifiers before destroying Kilkenny’s dreams of a historic five-in-a-row.
Cork have good memories too of having to travel the extra mile or two in the qualifiers. They lost an epic Munster final in 2004 to Waterford only to dust themselves down subsequently and get into Croke Park on All-Ireland day where they got the better of old foes Kilkenny.
Clare are another example of a county losing out in the province but coming good later. And Cork have reason to remember that occurrence in 2013. Cork beat them in Munster but when the counties met up again a few months later in the All-Ireland final it was the Banner County that prevailed after a replay.
Limerick came through the back door in their epic All-Ireland victory of 2018 and perhaps the most famous example of the lot was Offaly’s All-Ireland win of 1998. They lost the Leinster final to Kilkenny which resulted in Babs Keating departing as team boss.
They then reached the All-Ireland semi-final with Michael Bond at the helm. There they met Clare and it took three games to sort the issue. That was the year that Galway referee Jimmy Cooney blew his last whistle prematurely in one of the games and the game had to be replayed.
In the final they met up again with Kilkenny and this time reversed the Leinster final defeat by lifting the McCarthy Cup.
So, when you lose in your own province and your supporters are so downbeat in the aftermath as Cork’s were last Saturday in Thurles and Wexford’s in Croke Park there is still reason for hope.
Of course, a lot depends too on the first game in the All-Ireland qualifiers being kind to you.
With respect to the likes of Carlow, Antrim, Westmeath, if one of the bigger hurling counties square up to one of them in the first qualifier it gives you an opportunity to more or less ease your way into more difficult assignments ahead.
Cork certainly don’t find themselves in that position in Thurles today, going in against a Dublin team that have to be in a positive mood after their stunning comeback against Kilkenny last weekend, a comeback that ultimately just fell short by the bare minimum.
In fact, based on Dublin’s second-half display against the Cats, and Cork’s lacklustre display against Waterford for the greater part of that game, Dublin are probably favourites going into Semple stadium today.
The All-Ireland qualifiers are, of course, the last-chance saloon and the focus has to be right from the outset.
Cork, Wexford and Clare too will take encouragement from the fact that other counties have regrouped very successfully after a bad day at the provincial office.
By around 5.15pm in Thurles today we’ll know a lot more if that will be the case with Cork.
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