WHEN Cork last tasted national league glory, 24 years ago, they did so on the back of an 11-point semi-final victory over Clare.
Such was the manner of Clare’s insipid display that day in Thurles, rumours soon began to reverberate around the watering holes of Munster. The general consensus was that Clare had taken a dive, that the 1997 All-Ireland champions were simply playing possum before the two sides reconvened for championship.
The more conspiratorial of theorists even inferred that the wily Ger Loughnane had taken his charges to the Garda College in Templemore on the morning of the game, where he proceeded to run their legs to stumps. Sometimes, you see, it’s easier to concoct an elaborate tale than face the grim reality of a heavy defeat.
And with that in mind, can we all just agree that Cork's non-performance in the league final against Waterford was nothing more than a nod to the great early-season tradition of shadow-boxing. Scáth-dornalaíocht as Jamie Wall recently christened it.
It’s all part of the plan, and the bigger picture will soon reveal itself. Right?
Not buying it? Fair enough. Reality it is then. Infuriating inconsistency; a fragmented defence; forwards that flatter to deceive; inability to win primary ball; inability to win secondary ball; work-rate, physicality and lack thereof – now how’s that for reality?
Of course, none of this is new. Isn’t it mad how the existential crises surrounding Cork hurling seem to arrive earlier and earlier each year? The grand stretch has barely begun and already we are mired in self-flagellating discussions pertaining to the same, interminable problems that have adorned the tapestry of Cork hurling for well over a decade now.
Had a Netflix-style docuseries rocked up on Leeside a few years back to provide a fly-on-the-wall insight into Cork’s imminent return to the top, filmmakers and viewers alike would be pining for a fresh storyline by now, some sort of conflict resolution or at the very least, a novel way in which Cork’s ascent from the abyss could be thwarted. Not another gaping hole at centre-back!
Let’s start there then, with that gaping hole, that half-back highway down which many a fleet-footed forward has cantered in the past, with minimal interference and maximum effect. Supposedly, this old chestnut of a predicament had been rectified.
Remember when it was thought that the presence of Ciarán Joyce and Ger Millerick in and around Coleman’s general vicinity had finally allowed the Blarney man to cast off the shackles of defensive duty and fulfil the role he was born to play as Cork’s deep-lying libero. The problem with that, of course, is the ripple effect it causes further up field.
If Millerick is tasked with tailing the centre-forward, then naturally enough it falls to Shane Barrett or another of Cork’s half-forwards, none of which are renowned for their defensive capabilities, to pick up Millerick’s slack. And on it goes until there are not enough forwards to win the ball that those same forwards find so difficult to win in the first place.
Robbing Peter doesn’t always pay Paul.
Now it is worth mentioning at this juncture that all of this wearisome negativity stems from one game, a game that we can’t be entirely sure even mattered a whole pile to the competing protagonists. As I’ve written before, the beauty of the league is that it can be whatever you want it to be, especially this year where the championship has been abruptly shoved on top of it to facilitate both the club player and Garth Brook’s late-summer residency above in HQ.
Cork are five from seven this spring, it must be remembered, and the Wexford defeat was hardly a cause for any grave concern. But as every supporter knows only too well, the inescapable influence of recency bias means that all that has gone before is soon rendered inconsequential.
Not so long ago, just last month, we were serious contenders.
Eoin Cadogan even put forward the suggestion that we should rip up the script entirely and redeploy Coleman at 11 for the Limerick game. Babies, bathwater, deckchairs, Titanic; construct your own analogy from that one.
But if memory allows, and you are of a more cheerful persuasion, you could even garner some positives from the league, the foremost being Cork giving Limerick plenty of it above in their place. Fitzgibbon’s return to full health and the emergence of Joyce and Barrett in traditionally problematic positions are also high points.
So choose your poison. The league either matters an awful lot, in which case we could be in a bit of trouble, or the league doesn’t matter a jot, in which case Limerick have been busy scheming something unthinkably frightening over the past nine weeks and Cork are about to bare witness to the full scale of their malevolence.
Or… is it completely beyond the realms of possibility that the league matters a great deal, only up until the final, at which point the smoke and mirrors hastily come to the fore.
As things stand however, we are down, dejected and assumed dead. But a meeting with the All-Ireland champions down the Páirc (a full Páirc) looms large. The latest installment in a rivalry that has been threatening to bubble to the surface for a few years now.
Regardless of what happened last weekend and notwithstanding all of the negative vibes that I have just spewed into print, we’ve waited an awful long time for this. Too long to let the worst of supporting Cork get in the way of the best of supporting Cork. So yeah, why can’t we rattle Limerick?
The game’s on Easter Sunday too you know. And nobody believed Jesus would rise again either.