IT HAS been suggested in some quarters that the pairing in Sunday’s Allianz National Hurling League final in Thurles (4pm) was something of a surprise, but then, why should it be?
Kilkenny have been walking the high hurling road for the last decade and more, winning all around them, and going close when they didn’t actually strike gold. No surprise there then!
Cork have slipped a bit in recent times. They haven’t won the All-Ireland final since 2005, and their last League success was in 1998 against Waterford (2-14 to 0-12) when that great warrior, Diarmuid O’Sullivan captained the team and his trusted colleagues include Sean Og O hAilpin, Joe Deane, Brian Corcoran, Seanie McGrath, Mark Landers and current team mentor, Ger Cunningham.
Still, Cork are Cork and they are ever capable of high achievement at any time. Tradition, fierce pride and a good club structure are some of the major components that keep the Leesiders among the top guns.
While the Kilkenny hurling graph has been on the up and up, or operating on a plateau in recent times, things haven’t been the same with Cork. Off the field wrangling, and what seemed to be one distraction after another, coincided with a bit of slippage that led to their absence from the winners’ enclosure.
Class, as they say is permanent, so it was always going to be only a matter of time before the Leesiders got things together and got back among the real contenders again. New manager, Jimmy Barry Murphy, a former favourite who inspires belief and gives rise to hope not only within the county squad but among the faithful generally, has worked his unique magic and Cork are now on the cusp of something big again.
Winning the National Hurling League is not a maker or breaker any season, as Kilkenny proved last year when losing the final to Dublin in less than inspiring circumstances only to bounce back to capture the All-Ireland title in thrilling fashion.
However, the League can be a most valuable tool in the shaping of the season for any county. Being involved to the end, thereby bringing both counties closers to the start of their respective provincial championships and giving them quality games too, is a huge benefit for Kilkenny and Cork.
For Cork, however, this League carries far more importance than it does for Kilkenny because they are building a new team, exposing new players to the inter-county scene, and, not to put a tooth on it, they need to win something.
For a while it was as if Cork got lost in a fog of misadventure, but the charismatic Murphy has rallied the troops in spectacular fashion and has instilled unity and given everyone a definite direction.
The Leesiders recent 1-25 to 2-15 League semi-final win over beaten All-Ireland finalists of last year, Tipperary, was no minor achievement. Tipp tested them to the limit, but when Cork needed to show courage and conviction at vital times, it was there in spades.
The swagger has returned to Cork hurling, and that can only be good for the game. It was seen at its best in the semi-final from the 53rd minute on after Eoin Kelly smashed home a close in free for Tipp to put them 2-13 to 0-17 ahead. Advantage Tipperary!
Capable of anything
Yet, from there to the finish Cork excelled, out-scoring the opposition by a massive 1-8 to 0-2. Any team that can respond with such force in a high pressure situation is capable of anything, of beating anyone.
Murphy spoke about the younger players showing improvement all the time along the League road, while older hands like Sean Og O hAilpin, John Gardiner, the flying Niall McCarthy and goalie Donal Og Cusack – sadly his season has been ended by injury – have been powerful leaders.
Of the younger brigade, Conor Lehane and Darren Sweetnam – they had exams before the semi and were used as subs – have been hugely impressive, while speedy winger Jamie Coughlan, along with Paudie O’Sullivan, Patrick Cronin, Luke O’Farrell and others have helped give Cork a look of genuine promise that has been missing for a while.
And that is No. 1 in the League.....to get things into shape so you can face into the championship with some idea of your team.
The League progamme went nicely for Kilkenny, but recently things became seriously complicated when one player after another picked up an injury. Richie Power was the latest casualty at the weekend, but manager Brian Cody and selectors, Martin Fogarty and Michael Dempsey will also be without Michael Rice, who could be sidelined for up to six weeks with tendonitis of the knee, Noel Hickey (hamstring), Aidan Fogarty (broken wrist) and Lester Ryan (cartilage).
No county can shed talent like that - Power has scored 3-49 in five games - without suffering in some way.
There was some good news at the weekend when Richie Hogan (broken ribs) returned to action for Danesfort weeks earlier than he, and others, had anticipated. And his brother Paddy, who had been nursing a hamstring strain, also made a storming return in a lively game against Ballyhale Shamrocks.
Kilkenny have used the shortened League campaign – five preliminary round matches instead of seven – well and introduced a raft of new faces.
Different players have made different impressions. Matthew Ruth, for example, has scored 5-6 in the six games to date. That is a fair take. The only match he failed to score in was the defeat by Cork in Pairc Ui Chaoimh. A success? You bet!
Richie Doyle, Cillian Buckley, Kieran Joyce, Ruth and John Mulhall - the last day against Clare - Paddy Hogan and Willie Phelan have also gained valuable experience and didn’t look out of place. And that man of undoubted talent, T.J. Reid, progressed further to the point that he is on the verge of edged into the first XV.
All in all Kilkenny have to be pleased with their lot. This county would never regard qualifying for the League final as an achievement, however. Winning it would be!
Cork are young, hungry and ambitious and Barry Murphy has the players thinking like winners again. They have already beaten Kilkenny by 1-17 to 1-15 in the League.
Trying to reverse that result without the mighty Power, Rice, Hickey and company won’t be easy, but it is not impossible. The All-Ireland champions are facing a mountainous task. They have won in such circumstances in the past. It can be done again!