TWO minutes before half-time in Saturday’s All-Ireland U20 final, a small section of Cork supporters at the back of the Mackey Stand tried to lift the decibel levels and generate some level of support for the players.
‘Rebels, Rebels, Rebels’ rang out three times but the chant was forced and it quickly died in the throats of those singing that famous Cork war-cry.
The supporters didn’t lend much weight to the chorus because the mood in the stand reflected the mood on the pitch — there was no real belief that Cork could turn around what had appeared to be an irretrievable situation.
The only time the Cork crowd really found their voice was after Tommy O’Connell’s goal in the 46th minute but that had as much to do with the brilliance of that finish, than the crowd fully believing that a sensational comeback may be on.
That score still left 10 points between the teams but, for the first time in the match, Cork looked like they had a grip on Tipperary’s throat. Cork won the Tipp puck-out and Brian Turnbull was fouled for a converted free. O’Connell won the next Tipp puck-out and Ger Millerick was fouled for another free, which O’Connell nailed again.
Cork had thrown off the shackles by that stage and they finally had momentum in the match. Evan Sheehan had a goal chance saved by Aaron Browne. O’Connell scored the 65 before Sean Twomey’s shot shaved the outside of the post. A goal at that stage would have reduced the deficit to four but the shock was almost like a jolt to Tipp’s system.
Tipp won the puck-out and Ciaran Connolly was fouled for a converted free. Jerome Cahill won the resultant Cork puck-out and, although Conor O’Callaghan won it back, his clearance went over the line, and Billy Seymour nailed it.
And the Tipp scores kept coming.
Theoretically, there isn’t 11 points between these two teams, especially when Cork could have won the Munster final, but the fear coming into the match was that Tipp’s attack was just firing that bit more, and that they had improved more than Cork since the Munster final.
The eight goals Tipp scored in the All-Ireland semi-final against Wexford set the red lights flashing for Cork and that goal tally could very well have been repeated on Saturday; Ger Collins made two excellent saves while Jake Morris was just wide with another gilt-edged goal chance after Tipp turned over a short Cork puck-out just at the death.
Tipp knew there was goals in this forward line and they went for Cork’s throat from the opening ball. That detonation from that four-goal blitz seemed to concuss Cork and they spent the rest of the half trying to come to terms with what had just happened.
Goals kill teams but early goals psychologically terrorise opponents. Cork did create five goal chances over the 60 plus minutes but Cork knew that they couldn’t match Tipp’s goal-rate to make up the deficit, especially given that Tipp had scored 10 more goals than Cork coming into the match – and they had played one game less. In that context, the match was over after just eight minutes.
Despite the sides having the same amount of possession in the opening quarter, Tipp were clearly on another attacking level in that opening 15 minutes, nailing 11 of 13 scoring chances. One of those chances Tipp didn’t take was a brilliant Collins save from a Conor Bowe ground shot.
Cork did nail their first four scoring chances but they still only had a 55% conversion rate in that opening quarter. Yet they needed it to be 100% considering Tipp had already raised four green flags.
Cork actually had more scoring chances than Tipp (38-35) over the 60-plus minutes but Cork couldn’t afford to be so profligate when they were chasing the game so early. The four successive missed chances after half-time was critical but at least Cork were beginning to throw off the shackles by that stage.
Of the nine Tipp puck-outs Cork won, seven were secured in the second half, but, even if that late surge had reduced the deficit to four points, there was never any doubt that Tipp would have found a response.
The Munster final should have meant that both teams were going into the match with full confidence but Tipp had their chests out from the first ball, whereas Cork were tentative in every aspect, both on the field and on the sideline.
Switching Sean O’Leary Hayes and Conor O’Callaghan before the throw-in seemed a strange move, because it smacked of Cork being more concerned with Tipp’s inside forward line than fully trusting themselves.
In the 10h minute, Daire Connery was deployed as a sweeper – long after the horse had bolted from the stable – but that plan appeared to be abandoned within a minute after Tipp worked a short puck-out into a score, with Seymour knocking a long ball down for Morris to convert.
Players develop at different stages of their careers and, while Cork will get a share of players from this squad on to the senior panel in the coming years, Tipp showed on Saturday evening that they have more X-factor players.
The Tipp players were clearly surfing the tidal wave of confidence and goodwill within the county from the All-Ireland senior success six days earlier. But there was still a marked difference between both groups — especially in body language — from the first ball.
This squad cannot be blamed for prolonging the near two-decade wait for a marquee All-Ireland underage title. But Saturday evening offered another glaring example of how Cork hurling no longer carries the swagger and fireproof confidence of old.
Early goals may have altered the tone and complexion of Saturday’s game but there was still only one team which – from the very start — looked like they fully believed they would be All-Ireland champions 80 minutes later.