Cork and Tipp set the summer alight and we’ve only begun

An epic encounter in Thurles saw the championship blown wide open early on

The summer is a day old and already we're spoilt. Cork and Tipp and hurling left us floating out of Thurles on pure endorphins. A game that laid on three goals and 53 points would have been enough all on its own but for a finish, the winning Cork goal came from substitute Michael Cahalane, the 22-year-old who was told two years ago that he might never play hurling again because of a heart condition. And we'll get to him. All in good time.

First though, Cork are back. They beat Tipperary 2-27 to 1-26 here, giving of themselves in a way that was so far removed from last year’s tepid, sweeper-choked display as to make you wonder could it be the same team at all. They played fluid, zippy, first-touch hurling all over the pitch, putting Tipperary on the back-foot from early on and never letting up.

Cork selector Diarmuid O'Sullivan said during the week that the difference between this year and last year was that back then they had four forwards for six positions whereas now they have 10. And how. The six starting forwards scored 1-21 from play between them. Shane Kingston, for whom they have been waiting, pocketed 1-4 on his championship debut. Conor Lehane, for whom they have been waiting too, was a magnificent leader of the attack, scoring 10 points, five of them from play.

“Yeah, he’s been a sleeping giant,” said Cork selector O’Sullivan of Lehane. “He’ll give us 20 minutes, he’ll give us 15 minutes, he’ll give us 40 minutes. I don’t think Conor Lehane has ever given Cork a full 70. But I’m not surprised. There is no one who has dedicated himself more to this group since we went back training.”

Light on cover

For Tipp, this need not be a reason to get the undertakers on the phone. They were beaten here, yes, and deservedly so. They were exposed as being desperately light on cover in defence, where John O'Keeffe, James Barry and Ronan Maher all had days to forget but only O'Keeffe was replaced. If Cathal Barrett turns out to have a long-term injury – and initial signs didn't look good when he was stretchered off six minutes from the end – the Tipperary defence all of a sudden looks a severe weakness.

But for all their woes, they still racked up a score of 1-26 here. That would have won them all but one game they’ve ever played against Cork and would have drawn the other. Pádraic Maher rejected the idea afterwards that they were flat for the second game in a row – this was nothing like their listless day against Galway last month. It was a shoot-out and they came armed with fewer bullets than Cork did. No disgrace in that.

This was breathless stuff, life happening everywhere you looked. The sides went in level at 0-15 to 0-15 at half-time. Think about that – 30 points on the board and four goal chances missed between them. Dizzying.

Cork's young players came to make names for themselves – Kingston, Luke Meade, Darragh Fitzgibbon and the inordinately classy Mark Coleman at wing-back. Kingston it was who scuttled home the first Cork goal, swiping twice at a Seamus Harnedy pass to bobble a shot past Darren Gleeson soon after half-time.

Captured in song

But Tipp stuck at it. Seamus Callanan was immense. His ball to John McGrath for their goal on 56 minutes ought to be captured in song. McGrath's finish put Tipp ahead again and though Cork replied through Lehane and Kingston, Tipp still managed to have a lead with 65 minutes on the clock.

Enter Cahalane. Medical advice in early 2015 told him that due to viral infection in an enlarged heart, he ought to give up the game. He only made his return during this year’s league and now look at him.

“There’s a journey,” smiled O’Sullivan. “The game of hurling is secondary. Let’s be honest, the game of hurling is secondary to what that man and his family went through. And you know what, whatever about Michael I’d love to meet his mother and father right now. They must be the two proudest people here. His first chance, his first break of the ball, but Michael Cahalane has been doing that since he was 14 years of age.

“It’s justified. He was unbelievably unlucky not to start. But it’s his mother and father and the justification for the journey that lad and his family have been through. You know what? There’s no better sight. There’s no better feeling for that young fella right now.”

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times

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