Red-letter day for Cork as hurlers aim to persuade the doubters

Can Clare reproduce the heady mix of 2013 as they bid to dethrone formidable champions?

Limerick’s Seamus Flanagan posed big problems for the Cork defence in the drawn clash at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/INpho

Limerick’s Seamus Flanagan posed big problems for the Cork defence in the drawn clash at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/INpho

 

July isn’t done and yet here we are, only three games from the end of the hurling summer. Barring replays, a season that has been hurtling along at speed will only have a single stop left after tomorrow teatime. Feels odd, doesn’t it?

Come to think of it, even the chances of extending the season with a replay or two are slim enough at this stage.

For the first time ever, level scores after 70 minutes between Galway and Clare today or Limerick and Cork tomorrow won’t send everyone home to get ready for another day out. Players and staff will be sent back to their corners and the rest of us will hunker down for extra-time.

There has never been extra-time in an All-Ireland semi-final before – unless you want to count the refixed Offaly v Clare replay in 1998, which was, in effect, 70 minutes of extra-time on a third afternoon due to not enough time being played the second day. When two minutes more would have meant 70 minutes less. Ah, ’98. Now that was a hurling championship.

The 2018 version can already sit comfortably among some of the best of the genre, pretty much regardless of how it plays out from here. But since we are a gluttonous race – and given what has passed before us so far this summer – it would take a sort of wilful pessimism not to feel the pulse bubble at the prospect of what’s still to come. With the combined crowds at Croke Park over the weekend expected to handily pass 135,000, you wouldn’t say there’s any lack of anticipation in the air.

What is in the air – and younger readers may not have much recall of this phenomenon – is the lesser-spotted rain shower. And not just one of them. Saturday seems likely to be wet and Saturday night looks set to be drenched. If the forecasts hold up, Sunday afternoon will be clear but the effects of a weekend’s downpour is always noticeable on the Croke Park grass.

How it affects proceedings will be an angle worth keeping an eye on. Of the four counties remaining, only Limerick have hurled in the rain since the league finished four-and-a-half months ago. The old hurling adage says that when the conditions are wet, you go with the team who has the more skilful hurlers. Question is, who be they?

There appears to be a groundswell of umbrage in Galway this week at the constant references to their size, as if there’s an unspoken judgement on their skill levels baked into any statement on what an imposing physical proposition they are.

In truth, this feels a little like an army in search of a siege – seriously, have you heard anyone making out that a team with Joe Canning, Conor Whelan and Cathal Mannion in it wants for stardust?

Dubious looks

For all that, if there’s a premium on skill in wet conditions this evening, Clare will hardly be back number. The quarter-final win over Wexford looked to be a clear case of their 2013 cast getting its groove back. Tony Kelly, Shane O’Donnell and Podge Collins contributed 0-11 from play between them. John Conlon is in the Hurler of the Year conversation. All they’ll need to push Galway is to supplement that return with a goal or two.

Which is far from unlikely, by the by. For all of the talk about Galway’s physicality in the full-back line, the All-Ireland champions have conceded nine goals in the championship so far. That makes them the leakiest defence in terms of goals of the four teams left. For the record, Clare have conceded eight, Cork have let in seven, Limerick have kept it to five.

The latter pair will leave only a few seats spare tomorrow afternoon, a green and red tidal wave breaking on Jones’s Road with a final waiting on the shore. For Cork, this has to be the day when they attack the dubious looks that keep getting thrown their way. Back-to-back Munster champions, eight games unbeaten in the province – a feat bettered by only seven teams in history, no less – and still the believers are thin on the ground.

That’s just how it goes. You are who you are until you change who you are. Cork led their All-Ireland semi-final last year by two points in the 58th minute; a sending-off and a late deluge of goals from Waterford meant they ended up losing by 11. Crumble like that and you can’t complain. You can only resolve to put it right.

Limerick’s last visit to this stage was their epic defeat to Kilkenny in 2014. The world has turned for everyone since then – Cian Lynch, Séamus Flanagan, Sean Finn and Tom Morrissey were on their way to an All-Ireland minor final back then. Whatever happens, this has been a year of real progress for John Kiely’s young side. They won’t want it to end this early though.

Nobody will. July is still July after all. More than ever this weekend, it’s no time to be going out of the championship.

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