With Shefflin back Kilkenny look to be finding their stride and should clear the hurdle of Cork

This may be the last chance to put Kilkenny away


Henry Shefflin, having featured briefly against Tipperary and Waterford, makes his first start tomorrow since last September's All-Ireland final replay. A fit again Cillian Buckley also comes back into midfield for Michael Rice as Aidan Fogarty makes way for Shefflin in the full forward line.

This looks like the last opportunity to put Kilkenny away. It might even be too late. The ruthlessness of their extra-time display against Waterford was all too familiar. The unified scrapping for loose ball, the accuracy of their marksman. It felt perfect.

Too many of them are finding stride now. Michael Fennelly is galloping into view, more horse than man, bringing a physicality Cork will struggle to match. The younger Ballyhale brother, Colin, is also stretching his full wingspan. Richie Hogan is threatening to deliver an untouchable 70 minutes.

The ongoing concern about Shane O'Neill's hip, such an important figure in Cork's last defensive line now Brian Murphy is gone, makes it all seem so grim. But they are Cork with Jimmy Barry Murphy at the helm. That, more than ever, has to mean something.


Quality
They lost by 14 points in 2012. Lost by two last March with Conor Lehane's 1-3 causing all sorts of problems. He needs to repeat such quality tomorrow.

Séamus Harnedy looked a fine hurler in the Munster final. Pa Cronin’s long-range scoring ability is another essential weapon. Patrick Horgan’s redemption was deserved and vital.

If style matters, in what promises to be a hectic, vicious war zone, then Cork’s short game might just unsettle Kilkenny.

"There is no point dropping balls down on Kilkenny," said Waterford manager Michael Ryan. "They'll catch them all day long." That's a direct reference to the magnificence of Jackie Tyrrell against Tipperary. The younger defenders, Paul Murphy and Kieran Joyce, have also produced powerful resistance.

One small plus for Cork may be that Kilkenny’s goals have dried up. In five championship matches they have won three, drawn one and lost one. They have scored 2-98. Conceded 8-72.

Ignoring last year’s All-Ireland final replay, in 2012 they also won three, drew one and lost one. But they scored 12-91. Conceded 6-74. Goals have always been the bedrock of Brian Cody’s success. At least their point scoring average has improved by 1.4 per game.

But that won’t be enough to win the All-Ireland. They know this. They will be ravenous for some green flags. Go hard at Cork’s Achilles heel. O’Neill really needs to recover. What statistics can not show is their intensity and attitude in extra-time against Waterford. They were ferocious.

How to halt the unrelenting march of greatness? Cork’s young hurlers must become what Donal Óg Cusack, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín and Ben O’Connor became in September 1999. That’s the only way.

Cork have hurled Kilkenny into oblivion before – who can forget 2004 – and must now do so again. But the king has returned and Kilkenny now look too strong to stop.