THE Cork hurlers didn’t strategically engineer their third-place finish in the Munster Championship round-robin table, yet it could well be the best possible placing for them, facing into the All-Ireland Championship proper in the next couple of months.
Cork lost to Clare, in Cusack Park on Sunday, with Clare, Cork, and Limerick all finishing level, on four points. But points difference dictated that Limerick now face off against Tipperary again, in the Munster final, with Cork going through the All-Ireland qualifier route, while poor Clare get to sit it out for the summer.
Limerick would probably have preferred third place, as it was from there that they began their run to the All-Ireland title 12 months ago. Instead, they now have to extend a great deal of physical and mental energy in pursuit of the Munster title, against Liam Sheedy’s unbeaten Tipp, in a couple of weeks.
There are negatives in playing in that Munster final, win or lose.
Win it and you have to sit idle for four weeks, while your semi-final opponents are playing proper knockout hurling; lose it, and you quickly have to dust yourself down and see off a dangerous Dublin side that are now very much in bonus territory.
Cork won the last two Munster Championships, and a fat lot of good those two titles were to them, when they were being knocked out in Croke Park by two sides that didn’t make the Munster final in those years.
No, third is a great spot for Cork, and even the defeat to Clare offers them the opportunity to now fly somewhat underneath the radar, while the spotlight gets placed on the likes of Tipp, Limerick, Kilkenny, and Wexford.
Many pundits in the national media were writing off Cork’s chances prior to Sunday. The brilliant performance over Limerick, or the last two Munster finals, seemingly not enough to convince some that Cork are genuine contenders. This all suits the Rebels.
In saying that, last Sunday, in Ennis, certainly proved that Cork don’t seem to be a side that can just brush aside other teams while in third gear; not in the manner in which Tipperary can, for instance.
If Cork are not properly in tune, then they can be vulnerable. The work-rate drops a tad, the intensity levels aren’t what they should be, the challenges just not hard enough.
Invariably, the opposition then gets a foothold.
Since Cork have no more safety nets, then motivation should no longer be an issue. It’s time to bring the ‘A’ game.
Tipperary and Limerick did not have to face off against the version of Clare that Cork had to deal with in Cusack Park. The Banner were in last-chance saloon territory, and they knew it.
Their fate wasn’t even in their own hands, which is what ultimately saved Cork. A more motivated Limerick could have sent Cork the same way as Galway. This narrow escape will be quickly forgotten about if Cork are still hurling in August.
Somewhere down the line, John Meyler might have to start playing mind games with officials and opposition. Cork seem well able to cut open almost any side in Ireland, with skill, speed and space, but cynical play hurts them.
A lot of opposition managers are taking a leaf out of Pep Guardiola’s book and ordering their sides to foul early and often. The thinking seems to be to stop the Cork attack getting up a head of steam, and you will thereby prevent them getting any significant momentum. They seem quite content to give Patrick Horgan chances from dead ball situations, as scores from play always seem to hurt that bit more.
If Meyler was to call this out in the press, prior to a big game, it would put pressure on referees to punish such indiscretions. It is a trick that can only be used effectively once, so it is probably best to keep it up the sleeve for now. A rematch against Tipp would be the ideal time to unleash it, as the lack of pace in their defence means that they are the one team in Ireland most likely to foul Cork’s speedy forwards.
The big question is whether Cork have any more tricks up their sleeves, which they are holding back for Croke Park.
Another ball winner is still required up-front. The dual link-man threat of Daniel Kearney and Luke Meade worked against Limerick and Waterford, but the games against Tipp and Clare seemed to require a more direct approach.
Perhaps Tim O’Mahony or Declan Dalton can be Cork’s secret weapon?