WHEN the Cork senior hurling team next takes to the field, a gap of either 12 or 18 years will be bridged.
This weekend, Antrim meet Kerry at Croke Park in the final of the second-tier Joe McDonagh Cup and there can be few competitions anywhere else in the world where the prize differs depending on who wins.
If Antrim – the favourites – come out on top, then they will compete in the 2023 Leinster championship, at the expense of Laois, who finished bottom of the six-team round-robin there.
However, if Kerry win, repeating their round-robin victory over an already-qualified Antrim, then they will take on Tipperary for a place in next year’s Munster championship.
Such a game would surely go the way of Tipp, but let’s not forget that Kerry did beat the Premier County in the Co-op SuperStores Munster Hurling League at the start of the year – Tipp lost to the other five counties in Munster during 2022.
If a seismic surprise took place, does anybody really think that a provincial championship would go ahead without Tipp?
The GAA solution to the GAA problem would be to extend Munster to six teams.
Before that possible meeting, though, there are the All-Ireland preliminary quarter-finals to contend with. The McDonagh winners will host Cork on the weekend after next, June 11 or 12, while the losers of the final will have a home game against Wexford, who finished third in Leinster.
A week later, the winners of the two matches – the third-placed teams will be overwhelming favourites but it’s worth remembering that Laois surprised Dublin in 2019 – will be in All-Ireland quarter-final action against the sides that lost the Munster and Leinster finals.
Considering the vista facing Cork after they lost their opening round-robin games against Limerick and Clare, it would be quite the turnaround to be taking on Kilkenny or Galway for a place in the All-Ireland semi-finals.
The last time Cork played Kerry in the championship was 2004, the last year that the Kingdom took part in Munster.
The final score in Páirc Uí Chaoimh was 4-19 to 1-7 for the side that had lost the previous year’s All-Ireland final and would go a step further that September.
In the following day’s Echo, John Horgan made no bones about what a facile exercise it had been.
“A thumping but meaningless victory for Cork in a Munster championship game that should never have happened.
“If this is the GAA’s idea of promoting hurling in the weaker counties then God help us all.”
Joe Deane, the returning Brian Corcoran, John Gardiner and Ben O’Connor had the Cork goals and the margin of victory would have been even greater but for some excellent saves from Kerry goalkeeper Tadgh Flynn.
That year would prove to be the last where the All-Ireland SHC was open to all counties, with the Christy Ring, Nicky Rackard and Lory Meagher Cups introduced the following year as the All-Ireland B competition ceased to exist. Kerry have fared well in the time since, winning the Christy Ring twice when it was the second-tier competition and are now set to contest the McDonagh final for the third straight year, after defeats to Antrim and Westmeath.
After a barren spell, that 2020 win was a sign that Antrim were on the right road again and they suffered for the lack of a round-robin in 2021. A heavy Leinster defeat to Dublin was followed by a qualifier loss to Laois, meaning relegation and swapping of places with Westmeath.
The Saffrons’ last championship meeting with Cork came in the 2010 All-Ireland quarter-finals, after Denis Walsh’s side had been beaten by Waterford in a Munster final replay. In the first half, they struggled to get free of the Ulster side and it took a Niall McCarthy goal just before half-time to give them a 1-16 to 0-11 interval lead.
While Liam Watson was excellent in the Antrim attack, they were never going to claw back and eight-point deficit and Cork eventually won by 1-25 to 0-19.
Whichever of two sides Cork face next, the trend of Rebel victories will be expected to continue. However, winning the Joe McDonagh Cup will have been the aim for Antrim and Kerry and, by the time the champions face Cork, the pressure will be off in a sense and they will have nothing to lose.