I forget which soccer personality it was who said that form isn’t like a light switch because you can’t go from slow to fast. It wasn’t technically correct, but you knew what he meant.
It’s the eternal conundrum for any sportsman or woman or a team, how to hit that rich vein at the right time. For a golfer, it’s the majors, four four-day stretches each spring/summer; for an Olympic 100m sprinter, it’s ten seconds every four years; in GAA, it’s the championship, ramping up through the provincial championship and peaking for the All-Ireland.
The practice laps come in the national league, which is like the job interviews in Trainspotting that Renton and Spud had to do every so often to ensure that they continued to receive unemployment benefit – you have to show some bit of interest but you don’t want to do so well that you actually get the job.
The traditional consensus with the league was that a few wins would suffice, especially if a few new players could be unearthed, but winning it wasn’t a great idea as the final could be too close to the championship.
Things changed to some extent during Brian Cody’s era in charge of Kilkenny – the Cats have done six league and championship doubles, with Tipperary also managing one in that time while Limerick managed it last year, too. It’s not an exact science that a good league is needed for a good championship – in 2013, Clare and Cork met in the relegation play-off and then in the All-Ireland final, too – but last year showed a strong correlation between the competitions.
With counties engaged in enforced downtime during the first lockdown, there was little chance to find form when training resumed and it was noticeable that the four counties in the All-Ireland semi-finals – Limerick, Galway, Waterford and Kilkenny – had been among the best six league records. By contrast, Cork had had an up and down league.
Away to Waterford in Walsh Park in their first Division 1 Group A outing at the end of January, Cork had a great start as Conor Lehane and Shane Kingston scored goals in the opening three minutes but they couldn’t build on that and lost by 1-24 to 3-17.
Defeat put pressure on ahead of the second game, at home to Tipperary, but what ensued was what would prove to be Cork’s best game of the five. A great Robbie O’Flynn goal in the first half put Cork in front but Tipp led by 1-11 to 0-13 as half-time approached. However, Séamus Harnedy and Darragh Fitzgibbon restored Cork’s lead and a goal from a penalty by Patrick Horgan ensured that Cork went in at half-time with a 2-13 to 0-15 advantage and they won by 2-24 to 1-25.
Cusack Park in Mullingar was next on the agenda for Cork and they made it two wins on the trot as Horgan scored 2-8 in a 3-12 to 1-14 win. The Rebels led 0-8 to 0-5 at half-time and a penalty from Horgan on the resumption solidified the lead. A goal from a 65 by Allan Devine got Westmeath back in the game but Cork replied thanks to a fortuitous Bill Cooper goal and Horgan converted a second penalty.
Against Limerick at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Horgan would again record an impressive scoring tally, netting 17 points, but the visitors took victory by 0-29 to 2-21, with Cork’s goals coming from Shane Kingston and Aidan Walsh. The defeat left Cork needing something from their final game, away to Galway, but they fell to a 2-18 to 1-16 loss, Horgan scoring nine points and Tim O’Mahony accounting for 1-1.
Cork finished fourth in their section, albeit with the consolation of 11 goals in five games, the highest of the six teams. However, there was no proper opportunity to iron out the kinks and the inconsistency remained in the three-game championship campaign, with defeats by Waterford and Tipp sandwiching the win over Dublin.
As Kieran Kingston said torecently, the hoped-for difference this year is that the counties are starting out on a level playing field and the path from league to championship is clearer.
The big difference is that the five games will serve as a whistle-stop journey to get championship-ready. With such a short gap from one to the other, the formlines need to be strong from the off.