AT the beginning of the Munster SHC campaign, most Cork fans would probably have taken it if they were told that the final match would be decisive.
Given that the Rebels had been well beaten in the Allianz Hurling League final by Waterford and began with a home game against All-Ireland champions Limerick – with a trip to Walsh Park down the line – there was a sense that third place was a realistic, if not desirable, option.
Few reckoned with Clare, though, and when a not-unexpected loss to Limerick was followed by defeat to the Banner County in the ‘home’ game in Thurles, it seemed that qualification for the knockout stages was beyond Kieran Kingston’s side.
Perhaps it was the fact that last Sunday’s clash in Waterford was effectively a knockout game; perhaps it was that Cork showed a greater workrate and strong application on the Waterford puckout; perhaps it was the fact that Luke Meade’s return to the team gave the engine some oil – the bottom line is that they got the win that was essential, with two Alan Connolly goals critical in a 2-22 to 1-19 victory.
In terms of the Munster championship, it was a seismic result: it reignited Cork’s hopes and left Waterford behind the eight-ball – the draw between Clare and Limerick in Ennis meant that the Déise cannot now advance if their result in Cusack Park on Sunday is matched by Cork’s in Thurles.
However, a win cannot be taken for granted. Even if Cork had lost last week, it’s unlikely that a game between two old rivals would have been allowed to putter along at training-match pace, but the Clare-Limerick draw also had the effect of giving Tipperary a kiss of life. Despite losing to Waterford, Clare and Limerick, Colm Bonnar’s side could progress in third place if they were to beat Cork by seven points or more with Clare doing a number on Waterford.
That will ensure that they are up for the fight, but that’s probably not a bad thing from a Cork point of view. In 2018, the first year of the round-robin system, they faced an already-eliminated Waterford in Thurles and struggled to get up to the levels of intensity needed, only managing to pull away to victory at the very end. Given that both teams have something to play for, this should have the feel of an old-style, do-or-die tie.
While Tipperary aren’t as bad as they showed in that defeat at home to Clare, their battling display against Waterford is perhaps cast in a different light given how things have gone for the league champions since. Tipp asked questions of Limerick at TUS Gaelic Grounds, but the Shannonsiders were not at full-tilt that day and still had enough of a late surge.
Craig Morgan has been a real find in defence for Tipp and Ger Browne is capable of a scoring impact, while Noel McGrath continues to produce magic but he is one of the last men standing from the core of the side that pushed them to three All-Irelands and the rest of the supporting cast are still gelling together. Tipp have conceded eight goals in three matches, something which can hopefully be exploited again.
Essentially, though, Cork need to worry about themselves and repeating what they did in Waterford. Having been brought off early for Tim O’Mahony, there may be a question over Patrick Horgan’s place but it’s likely that Cork would get more from him starting rather than coming on.
Otherwise, the request is for more of the same, especially from a defence that has tightened up considerably in terms of allowing the opposition goal opportunities. Having given themselves a chance with a fine display, it would be a shame if Cork were unable to build on it, but in the same way as they improved through the qualifiers last summer, they should be able to harness the momentum that was generated in Walsh Park.