IT’S crunch time for both the Cork senior hurlers and footballers as the intensity of their respective championships heats up.
Amid yet another cauldron of provincial championship noise, the Cork senior hurlers fronted up to a Munster opponent but this time, came up short.
In front of 18,659 supporters, Pat Ryan’s side delivered a third consecutive performance of the highest order only to lose by a point.
Sunday’s encounter with Clare ebbed and flowed in a championship tie that was close to drifting away from Cork by a much wider margin during the second quarter.
It says much about the character of this Cork senior hurling team that they steadfastly refused to buckle under such intense pressure and instead came close to snatching a second win of this year’s terrific Munster SHC.
Clare’s Diarmuid Ryan eventually landed the killer blow with a marvellous long-range winning point.
A one-point loss was hard to take for a Cork team, but those are the razor-thin margins this year’s provincial hurling championship is coming down to.
On the same day, Limerick and Tipperary’s equally intense encounter could have gone either way but instead ended in a draw.
By last Sunday evening, and once everyone had time to draw breath, Cork and their supporters knew that victory over the reigning All-Ireland champions was now required to prolong this year’s odyssey.
By Sunday evening, Pat Ryan and his players will know where they stand. As for Limerick, nothing less than a win plus a shock Tipperary loss to eliminated Waterford will suffice if a fifth successive Munster SHC title is to be attained.
I doubt that this is the scenario envisioned by John Kiely before the provincial championship started. Yet that is where both Cork and Limerick find themselves heading to the TUS Gaelic Grounds.
Another potential epic awaits and there are reasons for Cork to be positive about their daunting trip to the All-Ireland champions’ backyard.
Rumours of unrest aside, Limerick are showing signs of mental and physical fatigue.
Conceding 1-68 in Limerick’s three Munster championship games to date isn’t a bad statistic when you consider Clare have shipped 10-76 (one game more played), Tipperary 7-67 and Cork 4-65 during the same timeframe.
It is the return of 3-63 scored compared to their Munster rivals much larger totals (Clare 8-91, Tipp 7-72 and Cork 7-64) that should most worry Kiely and this management team.
This is an area Cork will be hoping to exploit. Pat Ryan’s well-organised and disciplined defence has been one of the county’s major plus points this summer.
Sean O’Donoghue’s return from injury allied with Damien Cahalane and Ciarán Joyce’s consistent displays almost got Cork over the line in Ennis. As for the All-Ireland champions, they have yet to reproduce the kind of dominant, full-blooded 70-minute performance we have become accustomed to so far this year.
If Patrick Horgan can repeat his Ennis heroics (1-9) and the likes of Seamus Harnedy, Conor Cahalane, and Shane Kingston run directly at Limerick then Cork can cause their opposing defence enough issues to grab a victory.
There is no getting away from the fact that this is a monumental ask of Ryan and his players.
Yet, all the pressure is on Limerick, and Cork, if they perform, can capitalise.
On Saturday, John Cleary and the Cork senior footballers face a similarly important task in Navan.
The first of three All-Ireland SFC group encounters sees Cork needing to beat Louth ahead of taking on Kerry and Mayo. Such is complexity of this year’s football championship set-ups that one victory out of three will be enough to earn a place in the preliminary knockout stages.
On paper at least, Saturday’s clash with Louth represents the Rebels’ best chance of obtaining that goal.
Following a longer-than-expected lay-off, Cork have had ample time to prepare for another must-win game.
Any other outcome and the pressure will ratchet up even further on Cleary’s side ahead of the Kingdom’s June Bank Holiday weekend visit.