At HALF-TIME in the recent Kilkenny versus Clare NHL semi-final a group of players came on to the pitch dressed in black track suits with a lime green band down the side. After a few moments I discovered it was the Cork players ‘testing’ the pitch for their semi against Tipperary.
Cork players in a strip that displayed neither red nor white? Oh how times have changed! And that is not the only change I saw in those same Cork.
There is a confidence and a swagger about Cork hurling these days that has not been evident for some time. When looking for the reasons for the upsurge in Cork’s hurling one cannot look beyond ‘the Barry Murphy factor’.
Reappointing the former manager and player is no guarantee of success, but by placing such an iconic figure at the helm, the gauntlet was thrown down to every player. If a player is not prepared to ‘travel the extra mile’ for someone of Barry Murphy’s calibre and proven pedigree, then, there is no point in being part of the Cork hurling panel.
To date the Cork players have answered their master’s call with a number of impressive performances in which the hallmark has been teamwork and commitment. The Cork hurling public is starting to believe in this team and with good reason.
But we are only at the beginning of May and many difficult obstacles await the Rebels over the summer before the dream of a trip to Croke Park in early September becomes a reality. Next Sunday’s encounter with Kilkenny will tell us a lot more about Jimmy Barry Murphy’s players.
The League final is an interesting test for Kilkenny also. Throughout this year’s league the Cats have given contrasting performances. At times the side looked unbeatable, and on a few occasions, just plain ordinary.
One League loss in five is an excellent return by Kilkenny, but the fact that the one reversal was against the Rebels adds a little more spice to next Sunday’s encounter.
Seven week to championship
Cork and Kilkenny have seven weeks from next weekend to their opening championship games. Dublin is Kilkenny’s likely opponents, while Cork will probably face Tipperary, who will be favourites to overcome Limerick.
The one certainty about Sunday’s final is that both counties will be determined to claim the title. Some managers may dismiss a league final loss, but not the current men in charge of Cork and Kilkenny. They know only too well that nothing succeeds like success.
Lest we forget, the pre Barry Murphy era for Cork hurling was not all doom and gloom. The Rebels contested the 2010 NHL Final, although they suffered an eight point reversal that afternoon against Galway.
Eleven of the players who participated in that final are still involved with Cork and most will be lining out against Kilkenny. The big difference with 2010 is that the players are hurling with a lot more confidence.
Cork has unearthed a couple of fine young hurlers since the start of the year, but I urge their supporters to be cautious. These lads are not long out of minor ranks and while their league performances lit up many a grey afternoon, they will shortly discover that the championship is an entirely different world.
Not for the first time injuries are hindering Kilkenny in their quest to reclaim the league title and it got a lot worse last weekend when Richie Power suffered a serious injury. The county has plenty of exciting young hurlers on the fringes of the team, but the absence of at least six key players does lessen the options available to Brian Cody. Thankfully Richie Hogan is likely to make a return.
If this year’s league helped Cork to find a couple of young players, it delivered a similar result for Kilkenny. Richie Doyle and Cillian Buckley have impressed in the last two outings and have staked strong claims to start on Sunday.
The emergence of Doyle and Buckley is crucial to Kilkenny’s championship prospects and follows on from the impressive performances from championship debutants David Herity, Paul Murphy and Colin Fennelly last year.
Kilkenny’s League defeat in Cork some weeks ago is sure to bring added bite to Sunday’s final. Richie Power’s dismissal during the game was a big factor in the final result as he has now become the leader of the Cats attack.
Power‘s clash with Eoin Cadogan was expected to be the key duel next Sunday, but the Carrickshock’s players absence is a huge blow to Kilkenny’s prospects of taking the title.
Kilkenny looked comfortable against Clare in the semi-final and had the game secured long before the finish. It will be a very different game against Cork.
The Rebels brought pace and deft stick-work to their encounter with Tipperary. They also displayed an impressive work ethic which Tipp could not match.
Tipp hung in for a long period, but Cork’s victory margin was growing by the minute the closer the game got to the finish.
With a seven week gap to their opening championship game, Sunday’s final is ideal preparation for Kilkenny and Cork. The importance of league finals has sometimes been diminished in the past when one or both of the sides had a championship outing within a week or two of the final.
That is not the case with Sunday’s finalists, so one can expect a big effort from both teams. Cork’s last league success came in 1998, the second longest period the Rebels have been without a league title.
Kilkenny won five league titles in the intervening period and would dearly love to claim another title against their great Munster rivals.
Richie Power’s absence bestows the favourites tag marginally in Cork’s direction, but in many ways this is just the challenge which Kilkenny relishes. The Cats don’t like losing finals, especially against Cork.
Brian Cody and his fellow selectors may take a little longer than usual to select the team. The injury crisis means Kilkenny will be significantly under-strength, but if the work ethic for which the Cats are renowned re-emerges, capturing the League title is a real possibility.