Many times over the past decade Kilkenny supporters found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to sit back and admire their side ease through games with the result decided long before the finish, writes Nickey Brennan.
Sunday was yet another of those occasions. We headed to Thurles genuinely believing that this current Cork side was on an upward trajectory and well capable of defeating its great rivals in the National Hurling League final.
Cork had, after all, defeated Kilkenny not too long ago in the league and with a number of players absent, including Richie Power Kilkenny was seen as vulnerable.
I am sure everyone involved with the team heard small bouts of pessimism emerging around the county. But this team, whenever doubts have been expressed in the past, always come back to deliver a display that leaves supporters in disbelief at the continued hunger of the players.
Ten minutes into last Sunday’s league final Kilkenny had 2-6 on the scoreboard and the game was over as a contest. It got a lot worse for the Rebels as the game headed towards the interval with the Cork men offering a feeble challenge to a rampant Kilkenny.
In the semi-final against Clare Kilkenny looked a little lethargic, but it was an altogether different story last Sunday. The work-rate and intensity from every one of the Kilkenny players matched the best we have ever seen from the Black & Amber men.
We may have been witnessing a league final in early May, but Kilkenny played as if their championship lives depended on the result.
Time after time the Cork players looked bewildered at the intensity of Kilkenny’s play and their frustration was obvious at their inability to break free from practically every tackle.
This was a game where the absence of Donal Óg Cusack was sorely felt by Cork. His presence between the posts would not have changed the result of the game, but the over-worked Cork full-back line would have valued his tactical astuteness.
Two aspects of Cusack’s play were sorely missed by the Rebels. The first is his inch-perfect puck-outs which more other than not are delivered for the benefit of a team-mate.
The second is his ability to keep his full-back line alert and ready for any eventuality. It would be unfair to expect Martin Coleman, Cusack’s replacement, to immediately take on a similar role, but the presence of the Cork captain would have steadied a very-shaky defence.
Cork had only one puck-out tactic last Sunday and that was to find Patrick Cronin. In fairness to the Bishopstown player he won a lot of ball, but found it impossible to effect any delivery due to the glue-like marking of the Kilkenny defence.
This was a chastening experience for Cork. Jimmy Barry Murphy and his colleagues have a lot of rethinking to do in the coming weeks. The manner of last Sunday’s capitulation to Kilkenny is a huge worry with the championship just seven weeks away.
It did appear that Cork was well on its way to having a settled side. That notion has now been turned on its head and there will be many changes when Cork next takes to the pitch to play the winners of Tipperary and Limerick.
Kilkenny players are falling like ninepins at the moment and one hopes that Michael Fennelly and J.J. Delaney quickly return to action. Despite the absence of long-established players at various times, this league has been heartening for the emergence of new stars.
Richie Doyle, my Man of the Match and Cillian Buckley were brilliant, while Matthew Ruth and Paddy Hogan were also impressive. All four have lain down strong claims for a championship start.
This game, though, was ultimately about the fifteen players on the pitch at any one time.
Every single player dominated his immediate opponent and Cork was simply blown away by as devastating a display we have ever seen from Kilkenny.
The performance was a joy to behold and it would be a brave person who would now bet against the Cats retaining their All-Ireland title.