Slicker Cork can escape Dublin’s clutches
Great championship approaches endgame with little between first two semi-finalists
Cork have proved very reliant on Pat Horgan in their championship outings to date. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
The hurling championship has been completely re-energised by this season’s events. In recent years any time you were asked about the All-Ireland in August, the likely answer was ‘Kilkenny’ or ‘maybe Tipp or Galway’.
This year we’ve a couple of counties who’ve waited a long time for an All-Ireland and a couple of others who haven’t won for a while and no certainty as to who is going to claim the Liam MacCarthy cup .
The surprises have come thick and fast. Arguably both the Munster semi-finals and the final were won by the underdogs and it was the same for two of those three matches in Leinster. Both All-Ireland quarter-finals also went to the outsiders so it’s been an exciting and unpredictable championship.
This follows on from a very competitive though at the time a much-maligned league. Interestingly the four semi-finalists were the top two in Division One B and the bottom two in Division One A. Up to this lower division sides haven’t been coming through as competitively in the summer.
In the league semi-finals Tipperary seemed to confirm that trend by hammering Dublin but whereas that week spent on Bere Island looked like a mistake at the time, it benefited Dublin’s mental and athletic development in the long run.
I think the two draws in Leinster were massive days for Dublin. Down in Wexford they looked in danger of going out and then the first day against Kilkenny they confirmed to themselves what they had believed going to Portlaoise in 2012 – that they had the beating of the champions.
The team improved from day to day with Conal Keaney, Liam Rushe and Danny Sutcliffe, Dotsy O’Callaghan and Paul Ryan finding top form. As a unit Anthony Daly’s players have been bringing more than athleticism to their game; there was greater thought and direction to their hurling against Galway in the Leinster final and – unlike against Wexford when they shot from wrong positions – they worked the ball into the right areas to create optimum chances and take them.
It was at the time the best display I’d seen from Dublin but in the weeks since you have to query Galway. There’s no question about Dublin’s athleticism, power and hunger but the belief that their hurling has gone to another level relies too much on the Leinster final against a team who we have seen since were clearly off the pace.
So there’s a question about how Dublin will respond if they don’t manage to overpower Cork and end up on the back foot. Maybe their hurling will hold up but the big question is whether it will be slick enough. They have the physical power and ball-winning ability but what will they do with possession?
Cork also have questions to answer. They looked dangerous against Clare, had their excuses in the Munster final after missing chances and getting Pa Horgan sent off before half-time. They were actually not that impressive in the quarter-finals.
Their defence and midfield have been fine – Conor O’Sullivan, Shane O’Neill and Daniel Kearney outstanding as has been goalkeeper Anthony Nash – but with plenty of opportunities to use their pace against Kilkenny, time and time again they chose to stay outside and shoot from distance. It should be intuitive for forwards to take on defenders and it’s hard to see that intuition developing in the space of two weeks.
If Conor Lehane and Luke O’Farrell don’t find form I can see the attack struggling because they were very reliant on Horgan against Kilkenny and badly missed him against Limerick. He’ll be up against Peter Kelly, one of the most effective full backs in the game. Rangy and very quick, he performed well on Joe Canning in the Leinster final.
The five-week break has received a lot of attention and from experience in 2001 I found the long gap between matches difficult. Our worst performance came in the drawn semi-final against Wexford. Keeping preparation levels topped up is easier when the games are coming thick and fast.
Longer breaks require more detailed programmes of activity and it’s a danger for Dublin that they may start more cautiously rather than with the energy that put Galway under pressure immediately.
But I see this as being decided on the day. There are days when teams strike the right note from the start and have key moments early on in matches – a couple of good points, slightly lucky frees or whatever.
All four of the teams left are in some way or another finding their way as this championship goes on. One of them will win an All-Ireland that, in all likelihood, they weren’t even dreaming of at the start of the year. That can be very unsettling.
For Dublin, the Leinster final was an end in itself but tomorrow takes them to the brink of something extraordinary – more so for them than any of the other three counties.
For all the intangibles about both teams, I think Cork’s slicker hurling and the relative lack of pressure they’re under, as a county used to winning All-Irelands, will get them there.