THE inter-county championships are certainly going up a gear as we reach the business end of the Munster Championships.
While the Cork hurling team and supporters had the weekend off from competitive action, all eyes were on the hurling double bill in Munster which resulted in big wins for Tipperary and Limerick.
The one-sided nature of both games was a surprise considering home advantage proved so important in last year’s Munster Championship. All-Ireland Champions Limerick were entitled to be strong favourites but this was a pitiful performance from Waterford who have gone backwards under their new manager Páraic Fanning.
Their supporters will hardly be enthused by a trip to Leeside next Saturday.
Tipperary have been the form team in this year’s championship and outfought Clare at every juncture yesterday. The return of Liam Sheedy has galvanised the old guard and it is quite remarkable that none of their victorious All-Ireland U21 team are in the starting 15.
John ‘Bubbles’ Dwyer is a prime example, he has looked sharp and fit during the winter and has bought into the Liam Sheedy project. While he only scored a point against Clare his work-rate was superb.
Elsewhere, the much-maligned Cork footballers had a convincing win over a very poor Limerick side and will play Kerry in the Munster Final on June 22 at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. The vibes from the camp have been positive with a number of successful challenge matches played in recent weeks.
But Kerry will be two steps up in grade from the Limerick game so Cork supporters are certainly cautious and very guarded. Avoiding another hammering and putting up a decent performance will probably satisfy most.
Expecting a victory would be stretching things a little, to say the least, with bookmakers installing the Kingdom as 1/7 favourites to emerge victorious.
As a friend of mine who is domiciled in Killarney told me, Kerry supporters firmly believe they can stop Dublin winning five-in-a-row, Cork don’t even get a mention with them anymore.
The Munster hurling championship will go down to the final series of games with so many permutations.
Tipperary are basically through to the final after three consecutive victories over Cork, Waterford and Clare and given their scoring difference. Though Tipp, Limerick and the Rebels could all finish on six points each, the Premier have scored 25 more points than Limerick and 38 more than Cork.
The team selection will be interesting as all the management moves turned to gold against Limerick.
With Colm Spillane still on the injured list, the selectors must choose between Sean O’Donoghue and Stephen McDonnell for the corner-back berth, while the performances of Aidan Walsh, Luke Meade and super sub Alan Cadogan proved major talking points.
Conor Lehane will probably be available despite an early injury against the Shannonsiders but surely the temptation must be to hold him in reserve and start Cadogan this time.
Limerick well the Banner to the Gaelic Grounds and this game has a massive bearing on the overall championship standings. If Limerick lose and Cork win against Waterford the All-Ireland champions are out, by virtue to their head-to-head record.
John Kiely has been keen to point out that Clare have won the last three championship games between the sides with Limerick’s only defeat last season occurring up in Ennis.
The visitors will be embarrassed by their performance at the weekend with their star players Tony Kelly, John Conlon, Shane O’Donnell and Peter Duggan all playing well below expectations.
Despite that humiliating defeat I am expecting a massive backlash from Clare for this local derby. This might surprise some people but I think they are more than capable of causing an upset.
Remember that belter of a game between Clare and Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final.
The final series of games sees Cork travelling to play Clare in Ennis while Tipperary will host Limerick.
With the Premier already qualified for the All-Ireland phase, Liam Sheedy is likely to use some of that All-Ireland U21 winning team.
While it is still too early to make predictions Cork will most likely need to beat Clare to guarantee qualification for the Munster final or All-Ireland Series.
While the Rebels struggled to beat Waterford in last year’s championship they must put any inconsistencies behind them if we are to launch a serious assault for ultimate glory.
After the malfunction of the Cork bench against Limerick in last year’s semi-final the Cork management used the league to find a few players.
There are options from the bench which may prove crucial in the coming weeks. We are far from certain of qualification but it would be a bitter disappointment for Cork hurling not to qualify. There is no doubt that the team has a stronger look to it this season.
Obviously, losing to Tipperary was a major setback as it put them on the backfoot straight away. But they have regrouped in good style and victories over Waterford and Clare can pave the way for more drama in Croke Park.
Finally, back to the fortunes of the footballers who put a smile back on supporters faces on Saturday night.
Relegation to Division 3 brought a real air of doom and gloom to Cork football which has struggled badly in recent seasons.
As Ballincollig’s Patrick Kelly explained to me previously there were too many of the All-Ireland winning team of 2010 left retire together. Kelly pointed out that it takes time to get to that inter-county standard.
This present Cork team has a lot of experience now including Loughrey, Clancy, Maguire, Deane, Kerrigan, Hurley and Collins.
There have been bleak times lately but the green shots that everybody craves are very slowly appearing. At the same time, supporters need to be realistic and realise its one step at a time for Cork football.