CORK senior hurlers open their Munster Championship campaign this Sunday not knowing which Tipperary side is going to turn up at Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
Will it be the swashbuckling side that romped to All-Ireland victory three years ago, or the side that limped out of the championship last year after failing to win any of their four Munster championship games.
The All-Ireland win in 2016 seems like a long time ago for Tipperary hurling right now.
2017 wasn’t so bad, with them losing to Cork in Munster in a high scoring encounter, before negotiating the backdoor route to reach the All-Ireland semi-final where they went down to a last-minute Joe Canning wonder strike, which possibly prevented a two-in-a-row for the Premier county.
In 2018, though, the wheels well and truly came off.
Two draws and two defeats left them down and out, along with Waterford, at the bottom of the Munster Championship group, as they had to watch Munster rivals Limerick, Cork and Clare fight it out in the semi-finals.
As a result, former All-Ireland winning manager Liam Sheedy was brought back in to replace the departing Michael Ryan. Expectation levels immediately rose amongst Tipperary fans, and on the back of their U21 All-Ireland win last year, at the expense of Cork, that this was somewhat justified. However, Sheedy, and all Tipp fans, got a bit of a wake-up call in this year’s National Hurling League.
Sheedy openly targeted the league on his return, but defeats to Limerick, Wexford and Kilkenny derailed that effort. The narrow defeats to Wexford and Kilkenny would have particularly annoyed Sheedy, while the manner in which Limerick brushed Tipp aside by seven points at the Gaelic Grounds would have irked.
The league campaign would have shown Sheedy just how much work is required to make Tipp All-Ireland contenders again. Full-back remains a problem position, the Maher brothers certainly have their strengths, but their lack of pace will be targeted by every team they play, and lack of pace is perceived as a problem throughout the side.
In saying that Tipp had a lengthy injury list during the league with the likes of Billy McCarthy, Conor Hammersley, Michael Cahill, Brendan Maher, Sean Curran, Barry Heffernan and Dan McCormack missing some or all of the spring campaign.
Of course, Tipp finished their league campaign with a 1-29 to 1-16 rout of Cork in Páirc Uí Rinn, but they won’t be fooled into thinking that this was a true reflection of where Cork are at. Cork made absolutely no effort that day to try to isolate and exploit the aforementioned Tipperary defensive issues.
It did genuinely look as though Cork went to great lengths not to show their hand to Tipp pre this huge championship match. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating next Sunday.
Cork only put in one decent performance in the league, when they beat All-Ireland champions Limerick by 2-21 to 1-21 and on that day they went with was effectively a three-man midfield, as Daniel Kearney was dropping deep. With three ball winners in the half-forward to ensure Cork had the option of going long from defence if they wished, Conor Lehane and Patrick Horgan were isolated inside to do damage.
It worked, so you would expect this to be Cork’s approach against Tipp. There has even been talk of Darragh Fitzgibbon being utilised in the half-forward line this year.
Pádraic and Ronan Maher wouldn't appreciate having to keep tabs on the Charleville flyer. If this was to be done then this would free up Seamus Harnedy to spend time in at full-forward, thereby targeting another of Tipp’s perceived weaknesses, with Conor Lehane also likely to occupy both of these central spots at some stage.
Such options would certainly keep the Tipp defence guessing for the full 70 minutes.
With Colm Spillane out injured there is a huge hole in the Cork defence now, and Tipp are really going to go after Cork with long direct ball into the left corner. Spillane’s absence gives an opportunity for someone else, for sure, but from Tipp’s viewpoint, it is a chance to exploit a potential weakness.
The battle here could well be the winning and losing of this match.
Tim O’Mahony, at centre-back, was one of the main success stories of the league for Cork, and one of the most notable aspects of his play was the manner in which he held his position throughout.
Tony Kelly took advantage of this, by moving wherever he wished and he notched six points from play at Páirc Uí Rinn. Expect someone like Noel McGrath to try and exploit similar time and space on Sunday for Tipp.
Sunday’s winner will be confident of progressing out of Munster this year, whereas the loser will be on the back foot straight away, and contemplating early elimination. To say that this is a huge game for both counties is a huge understatement.