OSTENSIBLY, IT’S A clash of the old and the new.
The multiple-All-Ireland-winning Kilkenny soldiers against the young Cork upstarts. But as we’ve pointed out here before, the reality is that this Cork side is not as embryonic as they’re made out to be.
Sure, there has not been huge championship success in recent times but five of Sunday’s panels played in the 2005 All-Ireland final win and six of the 2006 final panel remain (Donal Óg Cusack would have been a seventh).
The team’s average age in the league semi-final was higher than Tipperary’s (25 to 25.3), and while age does not always tally with experience, the point is that this is not 15 slips of lads.
The core of the team which dismantled the soon-to-be All-Ireland champions in the Munster championship of 2010 remain. Indeed the Tipp team that dismantled Galway to win the U-21 final that same year arguably should have fallen in Munster to Cork, who were only taken to extra-time after Seamus Hennessy converted a late debatable 21-yard free. Seven of that talented U-21 Cork panel have now graduated to the senior ranks.
From back to front, Jimmy Barry-Murphy has quality — what he needs now is to retain the consistency his side have shown in this league.
There’s no reason to suggest they cannot.
The likes of Shane O’Neill, Brian Murphy, Seán Óg hAilpín, Eoin Cadogan, John Gardiner, Pa Cronin, Niall McCarthy, Paudie O’Sullivan and Patrick Horgan have all impressed over a number of years. While young guns Stephen McDonnell, William Egan, Lorcan McLoughlin, Conor Lehane and Luke O’Farrell all gave early warnings of their talent in last year’s championship. As well as being a team for the future, this is evidently a team for the now.
As the Cats continue to be.
It goes without saying that Kilkenny are an exceptional side and the one caveat for them going into this league final is the eventual humbling they received by Dublin 12 months ago. Back then, Richie Power and Henry Shefflin were also absentees, though this time former and present Hurler of the Years Tommy Walsh and Michael Fennelly are available. As such, the cupboard is not so bare; indeed the overall shelf-life has been improved.
Because Colin Fennelly continues to grow into the role of playmaker and finisher, while Matthew Ruth has gained a measure of comfort that he did not yet have when the team was shorn of so many leaders at this time and stage a year ago.
Eoin Larkin is another former Hurler of the Year and you would do well to name a more complete full-forward in the game, and of course Brian Cody has the option to move the James Stephens man out to the half-forward line.
Richie Hogan finally cemented his championship starting position last season and he is back in contention after a rib injury suffered against Galway. Hogan captained his club Danesfort last weekend as Ballyhale Shamrocks beat them in the Kilkenny county championship.
Clare’s Patrick O’Connor and TJ Reid of Kilkenny battle in the league semi-final last month. Pic: INPHO/James Crombie
Another man to play in that club game was TJ Reid, who has shown flashes of his form from a couple of years ago. Far from doubting the championship pedigree of Walsh and Michael Fennelly, Cody will have recognised that two of his marquee players have not quite had sterling league campaigns thus far. It will be interesting to see if that changes in a game that matters tomorrow.
Then again, this league title will matter more to Cork. It would further imbue them with a belief that already seems to be there. With the exception of the stricken Cusack and the possible selection of Cathal Naughton, this is Cork’s strongest selection. JBM is putting his brightest red rag out in front of the Kilkenny bull.
Lehane has been the revelation of the league and he is reinstated to the starting team having had the distraction of studies coming into the semi-final.
The 19-year-old landed a couple of strong jabs when he came on against Tipp but it was his fellow wing-forward Niall McCarthy who was the difference — contributing to 1-7 between scores and assists. The young and the old pulling together.
And that’s the feeling you get with this Cork team of 2012: they are on the same wavelength. The public believe, and belief counts for a lot. No one has more of that than Kilkenny so you can’t discount them on Sunday.
But this means more to Cork and theirs is closer to a first-choice phalanx. For a team that has done so well late on in games this year (Dublin, Kilkenny and Tipperary, with the one slip against Galway), a similar dose might eventually knock Kilkenny.
Thus finally banishing the public perception of Cork’s new side.