THE Cork hurlers didn’t deserve their season to end on such a low note, but in Croke Park there are no hiding places.
The Rebels paid a hefty price for two glaring errors on Jones Road. They weren’t 11 points worse than Waterford but the scoreline didn’t matter on one level because the bottom line is the Déise march on.
Still Cork were left to rue what might have been if it was 15 on 15 in the last quarter as the game was opening up. With an extra man Waterford were able to rip the Rebels open yet the game hinged on those huge moments.
First Damien Cahalane picked up a second yellow card for a high tackle when cool heads were needed as Cork had gained significant momentum and led by a point. His first yellow may have been questionable but the red was reckless.
That left them with 20-plus minutes to survive and unlike the Munster semi-final they didn’t have enough of a lead to defend. The huge Rebel support that packed the big house were behind them at that stage but given Waterford’s experience, hunger and motivation – against a team they owed from the provincial series and the league – the odds were stacked against them.
To their credit, even a man down, Cork struck three points in a row – including class efforts from Alan Cadogan and the outstanding Patrick Horgan – to lead again by two in the 57th minute. The next score was going to be critical and when Chris Joyce gathered possession in defence he needed to find an outlet, with Anthony Nash an obvious one nearly.
Instead he was robbed by Austin Gleeson and Jamie Barron struck the net. Even though it was only 2-13 to 0-18, Waterford were jolted by taking the lead again in such dramatic fashion and it was going to be a colossal task to turn it around again.
So while Waterford have a chance to bridge a 58-year gap to their last All-Ireland against Galway, without Liam McCarthy since 1988, Cork remain on the outside looking in. It’s now 2005 and counting since a magic day in September for Leesiders, but they’ll have to learn from this – on the sideline and inside the white lines – and go again.
The Déise have a few distractions from here – with Conor Gleeson looking to overturn his red card and Austin Gleeson under pressure after pulling the helmet off Luke Meade. Galway will be trying to honour the memory of legendary centre-back Tony Keady and finally live up to their potential.
Cork will watch on enviously and with interest and you’d like to think a base is now in place to challenge again in 2018. This week might be anticlimactic but it shouldn’t take from the progress made and the joy the whole county gleaned from the Munster success.
The fact the U17s won an All-Ireland eight days ago and the minors are into the final, hints at brighter days ahead for Cork hurling in general. The core of the Rebel team is the right age – the likes of Horgan, Nash and Cadogan have been in the form of their lives – and while Luke Meade was replaced at half-time on this occasion, the rest of the new recruits did well on their first visit to headquarters.
Reappointing Kieran Kingston and his backroom team is an essential step. These players need stability and to return a leaner and meaner group.
Of course Cork have been down this road before, ending the championship on a real downer after showing flashes of brilliance in earlier games. After making the last four back in 2014, they suffered some harrowing losses to Tipp, Waterford, Wexford and Galway.
Those defeats damaged their confidence and the question now is whether they can avoid that trap. You’d hope the verve shown by Mark Coleman, Shane Kingston and Darragh Fitzgibbon can carry them through that now.
Even if he erred in getting sent off, Damien Cahalane has improved enough to be an All-Star nominee. Conor Lehane has arched over sizzling points in every game and the Joyce-Mark Ellis-Coleman axis is the best across the half-back line for a decade.
He was ridiculously red-carded yesterday, but Patrick Horgan has never hurled with more skill and accuracy highlighted by his 0-5 from play in an attack that didn’t click as a unit. There are positives to be taken from this summer, even in defeat, but only everyone accepts the bar has been raised.