Friday 28 October 2016

Roche's Point: Reaching a final can be bad for you

Jimmy Barry Murphy
Jimmy Barry Murphy

HEADING for Thurles on Sunday morning, this column never for one second assumed that it would leave Semple Stadium that evening mulling over the following poser: "So then, who was the bigger league final flop? The Cork footballers … or the Cork hurlers?"

Merely having to ask that question encapsulates just how ramshackle the Rebel stickmen were against Waterford. Nor is that intro designed to rain on the Deise's parade, or even to belittle Dublin's NFL hat-trick; but rather as a lead-in to another question, namely are you sometimes better off not qualifying for the league knockout stages?

Put it this way: Cork now appear in a worse pre-summer place than Kilkenny (relegation play-off winners) or even Clare, who lost that play-off while at least showing hints of their old All-Ireland mojo.

In fairness, as recent records underline, it would be statistically wrong to state that winning the league is injurious to summer well-being. Prior to this year, the Kilkenny hurlers had won three leagues on the spin and the All-Ireland in two of those seasons (2012 and '14) while, in football, we had league-and-championship doubles in three of the last six campaigns - Kerry in '09, Cork in '10 and Dublin in '13.

However, you are on safer terrain to argue that reaching a league semi-final or final - and then losing badly - can leave you floundering to rediscover form, confidence and momentum in time for the championship.

The Derry footballers are the most recent and standout example: touted as relegation candidates before last year's league, they bucked the odds to reach a Division One final … but after the wheels came off against Dublin, they careered up a championship cul-de-sac, losing at home to Donegal and then Longford in the qualifiers.

It's true that some teams complete spectacular recoveries from a league final wake-up call. The Dublin footballers lost an eight-point lead to Cork in 2011, a chastening precursor to summer glory; but they and Galway (in 2001) are the only NFL runners-up over the last three decades to lift Sam Maguire.


Some teams have lost both finals in the same year - Mayo in 2012, Kerry in '08 are the most recent examples - but far more NFL runners-up fail to make a sustained assault on the All-Ireland.

That must be a worry for Brian Cuthbert's Cork; far more alarming was the total malfunction, against Dublin, of a new defensive system that seemed to be bedding in quite well for much of spring. What now? Back to the drawing board? Find a new board entirely?

Hurling has only a slightly better strike rate when it comes to league runners-up battling back to September's pinnacle: Brian Cody's Kilkenny have managed it twice, in '07 and '11 (after a league meltdown against the Dubs) while Clare did likewise at the outset of the Ger Loughnane era in '95.

For Cork, though, the real conundrum facing Jimmy Barry-Murphy (above) is the comprehensive manner of Sunday's defeat to Waterford - their torpor from the throw-in (a recidivist tendency) and the ineffectualness of some big-name players when the physicality stakes were raised.

Facing Waterford again, on June 7, offers ideal backlash material - but only in theory, a place where no All-Irelands were ever won.

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