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Rebels can rise again

 

I HAVEN’T got my Irish TV channels sorted for the summer yet, so I crossed the road to the Boston Arms last Sunday for the hurling.

I arrived a few minutes late and the score read 1-4 to Kilkenny and nothing for Cork.

Ugh, another one of those days, eh?

I was going to get a pint of blackcurrant but thought I might as well have a Guinness. The game was settled before the jar; by the time I sat down it was 2-6. Teach me not to stop for the red man at the traffic lights.

Kilkenny had done their usual thing: go for the jugular early and often. Cork, in the opening stages, did what they and everyone, bar Tipp, have done when facing the Cats in recent years: get shoved around, concede a couple of stupid goals, die a little inside.

For some reason, though, I was fairly placid as half-time approached and there was no sign of the hope we Cork people had indulged before throw-in. Even in the second 35, as Kilkenny refused to allow a Rebel resurgence, I was not perturbed.

And then towards the finish, Kilkenny wilted ever so slightly. Cork were too naïve and wasteful to turn their superiority into goals, but they were superior. Red shirts emerged from the contests in possession and Cork legs pumped the hardest as the tape loomed.

Sure, Kilkenny had pulled up, the race long since won, but I don’t know… put it down to mindless optimism, I can still see Cork winning the MacCarthy Cup in 2012. Yes, I did write that last sentence. Did you have to read it twice? Am I insane? Maybe a little, no more so than you or anybody else these days, but I think I’m onto something here.

As the season progresses, Cork will becoming wiser and, like Kilkenny, more cynical. Kilkenny aren’t going to get any younger though. The Cats, thanks to Cody’s policy of constant evolution, are certainly not an old group. Fifteen members of their panel were either on the U-21 All-Ireland champion team of 2008 or the Minor winning teams 2008 and 2010. But, the spine of their side is closer to 30 than 25.

Sunday was all about them putting out the Rebel flame: don’t even dream you’re at our level. You could say mission accomplished. Yet, be in no doubt, Kilkenny wanted to bury Cork in the second half. They didn’t quite manage that. It was 10 points each after the change of ends and had there been another 35 minutes, Cork would have won them.

I have a feeling that Sunday could take more out of Kilkenny than it will Cork. The Rebels now know exactly where the bar is. They played just about as poorly as they could but still lived with the All-Ireland champions in the second half.

Kilkenny came to finish Cork, but Cork escaped, wounded, but ready to fight again.

When a team has been on the go for as long as Brian Cody’s, they only have a few peak performances in them each season. Last year, weakened by the absence of star quality such as JJ Delaney, Henry Shefflin, Richie Power and Michael Fennelly, they were content to take a trimming from Dublin in the league final, knowing they’d be back to balance the books soon. But over a century of keen rivalry means Cody was never going to let Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s rejuvenated side steal any kind of march on his men.

So, despite being short of Shefflin, Power and Aidan Fogarty, he decided it was marker-setting down time.

Well, the marker is down, but it can be surpassed. There is more potential for improvement in the red ranks than among the stars in stripes.

Luke O’Farrell, Conor Lehane, and Pa Cronin were not themselves. This game, especially for the former duo, will bring them on more than a year’s worth of training sessions. Martin Coleman had a howler in the Cork goal. He too will improve. Or else he’ll be dropped for Anthony Nash.

Cork’s more experienced players, John Gardiner, Shane O’Neill and Eoin Cadogan carried the fight in the second half.

And, as is always the way when Kilkenny play, it really was a fight.

Cody’s ludicrous comments last week about how the game is in danger of going soft certainly did the necessary. I don’t know why the GAA bothered to send down James McGrath from Westmeath to ref the match. They could have saved a few euro by giving Cody a whistle — he wouldn’t have used it much anyway.

Snakey tugs at the jersey or hurley: no bother.

Third man tackles: good honest fun. Close-lines on advancing players: let the game flow.

Flying full pelt in someone bending down to pick up the ball and damn near removing his head: ah lads, if we outlaw that we may as well pack it in and go for cocktails instead.

Kilkenny are certainly not the only team practising dirt, but, like the hurling itself, they are by far the best at it.

Jimmy Barry-Murphy has a choice.

He can either take his panel down to the local UFC gym and implant some steel into their shoulders and chests, or he can speak up; use his stature in the sport to say that hurling should be refereed according to the rules of hurling, not mortal combat.

It’s hard to do that without sounding like a ninny, but the alternative — say nothing and do nothing and hope something changes by itself — will not work. Saying nothing and doing nothing almost guarantees Cork will remain where they have been for the past five seasons: capable of the odd decent performance, but not near the shake-up when it matters; a kind of a hurling Tottenham Hotspur.

As a Spurs fan who grew up on Leeside, I know that Cork are about more than the pride of North London.

There have been dark days, but overall the Rebel hurlers’ history is steeped in winning; in finding a way to clear the bar.

Five years of conflict and division cannot be shaken off in one winter. It mightn’t feel it now, but spring is coming.

The smart money says Cork won’t be truly competitive for at least another year or two but hurling, like all great games, mirrors the rest of life. Change creeps up, and then pounces.

Cork aren’t yet back, but they’re closer than you think.

 

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Ronan Early
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Ronan Early is Sports Editor and columnist with The Irish Post. Follow him on Twitter @RonanEarly

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