Remember when the Cork hurlers took the league seriously...

Remember when the Cork hurlers took the league seriously...
Captain Diarmuid O'Sullivan with the league trophy after Cork beat Waterford in 1998. Picture: Des Barry

IF you go to the Wikipedia page for the 1998 National Hurling League and click on the link for the report for that year’s final you are brought to an article with a photograph that is somewhat unsettling if you happen to be a Cork hurling supporter.

You see, the photograph is in black and white.

We are all very much aware of the long gaps since the Cork hurlers have won silverware at national level, across almost all levels and age groups, but the sight of a proud 20-year-old Diarmuid O’Sullivan leading the Cork team around Semple Stadium in advance of their seven-point victory over Waterford in the ’98 league decider shorn of colour seems a step too far.

Brian Corcoran of Cork in action against Dave Bennett of Waterford during the 1998 National Hurling League final at Semple Stadium in Thurles. Picture: Damien Eagers/SPORTSFILE
Brian Corcoran of Cork in action against Dave Bennett of Waterford during the 1998 National Hurling League final at Semple Stadium in Thurles. Picture: Damien Eagers/SPORTSFILE

22 years isn’t THAT long ago.

The WhatsApp generation may be shocked to hear this, but colour technology was well advanced at that stage. We even had the internet, even if nothing was on it yet.

Clearly this was just a design decision by the owners of the relevant website, but the point remains, as to Cork supporters it might as well have been in black and white at this stage.

For 22 years now we have been hearing the old mantras 'shur it’s only the league' or 'shur wait until the ground is harder', or crude variations of the above phrases to explain Cork’s approach to various failed league campaigns.

The thinking seems to be that the lengthening of the evenings will transform Cork completely from their winter slumber and see them overtake the field to sweep all before them in swashbuckling fashion.

Cork hurler Fergal McCormack at full tilt against Waterford in the 1998 Hurling League final at Semple Stadium. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE
Cork hurler Fergal McCormack at full tilt against Waterford in the 1998 Hurling League final at Semple Stadium. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

And while Cork hurling is certainly suited to summer hurling, there is little or no evidence available to support the mantra that poor league form can magically metamorphosise into championship momentum.

Cork ultimately won three All-Irelands after that ’98 league triumph, in 1999, 2004 and 2005, with members of that 1998 win backboning these efforts.

Nine starters in the All-Ireland final of ’99 started the ’98 league final, while four of these – Brian Corcoran, Sean Óg Ó hAilpín, Joe Deane and Diarmuid O’Sullivan - still remained in 2005.

Cork hurling wizard Joe Deane takes on the Waterford defence in the 1998 hurling league final at Semple Stadium. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE
Cork hurling wizard Joe Deane takes on the Waterford defence in the 1998 hurling league final at Semple Stadium. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

Is it a coincidence that All-Ireland triumphs followed a league win? Perhaps, but the league win certainly would not have hurt.

A quick look at the fortunes of Cork’s competitors in this period tells a similar story. Kilkenny have won 13 league titles since 1998, Galway have four, Tipperary have three, Clare and Limerick have one each.

Fergal Ryan clears the sliotar for Cork against Waterford in the 1998 Hurling League final in Thurles. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE
Fergal Ryan clears the sliotar for Cork against Waterford in the 1998 Hurling League final in Thurles. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

All these counties have gone on and won All-Irelands. In fact, their league title tallies are not a million miles off their respective All-Ireland win totals, perhaps with the exception of Galway, who only converted one of those four league titles into an All-Ireland gong.

Cork have certainly been consistent, since 2005 anyway. Zero for zero.

It’s too late for the 2020 campaign, but sometime soon Cork are going to have to start taking the league more seriously.

It might not have immediate positive effects. 1998 is a perfect example of this.

Cork won the league and thought they were back in the big time, yet come championship time Clare ended up teaching them a lesson only a matter of weeks after Cork had easily disposed of them in the league semi-final.

There is no denying league and championship are different animals, but the ’98 league experience would have stood to Cork in 1999 and beyond.

The Cork team prior to the 1998 National Hurling League Final match between Cork and Waterford at Semple Stadium in Thurles. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE
The Cork team prior to the 1998 National Hurling League Final match between Cork and Waterford at Semple Stadium in Thurles. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

One of the main charges thrown at the Cork hurlers is their lack of consistency.

Last year in the championship game against Limerick at the Gaelic Grounds Cork looked like world-beaters, but could not back that up afterwards, when losing to both Clare and Kilkenny.

The league was an opportunity to address this, but again, bar one impressive performance against Tipperary, Cork were consistently inconsistent in this year’s league as well.

It was telling that this one ‘performance’ against Tipp came in the one game that Alan Cadogan featured.

Cork's Alan Cadogan shoots under pressure from Tipperary's Jerome Cahill. Picture: INPHO/Ken Sutton
Cork's Alan Cadogan shoots under pressure from Tipperary's Jerome Cahill. Picture: INPHO/Ken Sutton

The Douglas corner-forward can’t help himself.

He is a livewire whenever he takes to the pitch and that is infectious to the rest of the team, but when he is marked absent, which unfortunately is a frequent affair due to injury issues, then Cork’s energy levels visibly dissipate.

There is now a huge gap between Cork’s last league defeat to Galway and their first championship outing against Limerick on May 10.

All of the Rebels' Munster opponents will have been involved in the knock out stages of the league, getting more valuable game time and match intensity under the belt, while Cork have to prepare exclusively with A v B games, playing against the U20s, and by jumping on the challenge match circuit.

In one way it allows Kieran Kingston and his backroom staff to prepare in the long grass, and perhaps set themselves up to ambush Limerick in Round 1, but again, the evidence of the past two decades, or so, would tell us that ultimately this approach has not worked for Cork.

Wins over Tipp and Westmeath were attained, but three defeats in winnable games to Waterford, Limerick and Galway meant it was a mediocre campaign, at best.

The positives to be taken away by Kingston were few and far between. Robert Downey was the big success story at full-back and then centre-back, with the latter role being the position the Glen Rovers youngster will hopefully nail down.

A word of caution though. Tim O’Mahony was earmarked for this role this time last year, and a lot of opinions were changed in the opening half of the very first championship game against Tipperary with regards to O’Mahony’s suitability as a number six, so supporters must be patient with such young players.

Speaking of O’Mahony, it was surprising to see the Cork management persist with the Newtown man in a defensive role.

It does seem that they are extremely eager to bolster the Cork half back line this year, but it seems to be doing a great disservice to continue to pick him in defence, and especially so when you consider what he could bring to the side further up the pitch.

Someone needs to call halt to this madness, and now. It’s not working.

There is a long gap now before Cork are seen in a competitive environment again.

There will be huge question marks over plenty positions and personnel in the interim.

Ultimately whether Cork can find the answers between now and May will define Cork’s season.

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