The frenetic nature of this year’s Allianz Hurling League was illustrated by Cork going from first in the Division 1 Group A table to second to fifth in the space of a few minutes towards the end of Sunday’s clash with Galway.
Going into the final round of fixtures, the Rebels were in third spot on five points, one behind Galway and Tipperary – a home victory at Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Sunday, coupled with a draw or a defeat for Tipp against Waterford, would have seen Cork top the table and qualify for a final against Kilkenny that may or may not have been played. They led the game as late as the 57th minute, when three quick points, two from Patrick Horgan and Darragh Fitzgibbon’s fourth of the game, put them 2-20 to 2-18 ahead.
However, back Galway came again, with Evan Niland and Fintan Burke on hand to level in the 61st minute – such a result would have meant Galway finishing top with Cork a point behind, level with Waterford and Tipp but taking second place due to a better scoring difference.
Ultimately, Galway found an extra gear and the excellent Cathal Mannion scored their third goal, the game slipped away from Cork. Shane O’Neill’s side were heading for top spot on eight points with Cork left on five – insult added to injury by the fact that Limerick’s win over Westmeath also took them to five and they edged out Cork for fourth place on a head-to-head record.
In the heel of the hunt, there is no real difference between finishing fifth compared to second – it’s not as if relegation was ever a fear – and, given the possible lack of a league final, you could say that coming top doesn’t hold much of a cachet, either. As an aside, it would have been somewhat ironic if a Cork-Kilkenny decider had ended up not being played, given that the counties played a relegation play-off in 2019 that was essentially meaningless as the league was being restructured anyway.
How you see the league probably depends on your general outlook as it can be spun positively or negatively. On the pessimistic side, Cork won two games, one against Westmeath and the other the opener against a Waterford side starting back late after last year’s All-Ireland; while they led by three against Tipperary and seven against Galway without managing to win either match. The tally of 107 points scored was better than only Westmeath and they are going into the championship against Limerick in just under three weeks on the back of two straight defeats.
To look at things in a better light, 34 players were given game-time, they won eight out of ten halves they played in, the tally of 18 goals was six better than the next-best county on that front (Galway); last year’s All-Ireland finalists were beaten and defeat was avoided away to the 2019 champions, while nothing was given away that might help Limerick ahead of the championship meeting.
As usual, the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes and it won’t be until after that Munster semi-final in Thurles on July 3 that we have a better handle on things.
What can we do for now is try to parse some of the figures available to us. Of the 32 outfield players who featured, 22 scored at least a point (though one of those, Brian Turnbull, has since departed the panel) while 13 players had at least three scores. Of the 18 goals, Alan Connolly and Jack O’Connor had four each while Patrick Horgan had three with Alan Cadogan, Tim O’Mahony, Conor Cahalane, Shane Barrett, Shane Kingston, Robbie O’Flynn and Luke Meade all netting one each. Ten goalscorers in five games is positive in whichever light it is held.
Of the 350 available minutes (excluding stoppages), it’s hardly surprising that captain Horgan featured the most with 286, scoring 3-42 with 3-10 of that coming from play. Westmeath was the only game the captain started but didn’t finish and indeed all of the other five starting forwards against Galway made way during the game.
Following Horgan with 280 minutes, four full games each, were Mark Coleman and goalkeeper Patrick Collins, while Luke Meade, Damien Cahalane (278 each), Darragh Fitzgibbon (262), Tim O’Mahony (257), Jack O’Connor (241), Conor Cahalane (240) and Seán O’Donoghue form the rest of the top ten.
One would expect the bulk of them to be in the startling lineup against Limerick, injuries permitting. Cork will go in as underdogs and, while the management will know that there are flaws that need addressing, there are some positives to take from the league, too.