Rebels to make return official
ALLIANZ NHL DIVISION 1 FINAL
CORK v GALWAY
(Thurles, Tomorrow 7.0, live TG4)
IT HAS been a bad few weeks for the marketing folk up in Croke Park and down at Allianz HQ, too. Not for the first time, the National Leagues have fizzled out in the home straight and we're crying out for a positive antidote in Semple Stadium tomorrow evening.
Part of the 'problem' has been structural. Replacing the old scoring-difference rule with a head-to-head tie-breaker meant the Cork footballers were already safe before their last game, greatly facilitating Mayo's progress.
Cue the last round of the hurling: Division One was a complete non-event, with the exception of Dublin-Limerick (another non-event, as it happened!), and so we had Galway and Cork indulging in a bout of Salthill shadow boxing.
Last weekend, for reasons that had nothing to do with structure and everything to do with Mayo's penchant for Croker meltdown, we had a dismal top-flight finale in the football. And now for the good news: for lots of reasons, the hurling equivalent should be a whole lot better.
Firstly, recent NHL finals have easily eclipsed the more prosaic football ones. Waterford's '07 victory over Kilkenny was an excellent encounter, which was bettered by the high-scoring shootout between Tipperary and Galway in '08, which was bettered again by last year's extra-time classic between Kilkenny and Tipp.
Secondly, there's the fact that both sides could actually do with the injection of confidence that comes with a league title.
Cork haven't won the 'second most important' competition since 1998, and this will be their first spring decider in eight years. Galway have generally fared better in recent leagues (it helps when you're not on strike) and yet they haven't won the title since 2004. Ergo, no harm for either to change that trend tomorrow.
A trawl through the records reveals that Cork-Galway is a unique NHL final pairing, but they have plenty of recent championship history and that should ensure some feisty exchanges here.
Famously, 14 Rebels overcame one Galway demigod -- Joe Canning -- as his colleagues floundered at this venue in the summer of 2008. Twelve months later, though, Galway gained sweet revenge with a powerful finish to a previously close contest containing no great sparkle.
The most recent collision between the counties came just two weeks ago, but that seven-point Galway victory should carry more government health warnings than a ship-load of cigarettes.
With final progress already guaranteed, John McIntyre had made 15 changes, Denis Walsh a mere 12. And while the game itself was passably entertaining, it was clearly not the real deal.
Even still, Niall Healy greatly enhanced his starting claims by scoring 2-9 -- only to damage those claims by suffering an ankle injury on club duty last weekend.
On paper, however, Galway's scoring potential is scarcely damaged by the return of Portumna's Little and Large act -- Joe Canning and Damien Hayes -- in their inside attack.
Cork fans would obviously feel more sanguine about facing big Joe if Eoin Cadogan was fit for full-back duty, instead they must hope the relatively unknown Eoin Dillon doesn't succumb to big-match nerves, especially if he has Canning for company.
Picking a winner from this pair isn't easy, reflected in the match odds below. Another Canning masterclass could obviously prove decisive, yet Cork have compiled an impressive body of spring work, even while their manager was busy trawling through a raft of personnel.
It's only a hunch, but we're leaning towards Denis Walsh's Leesiders on this occasion.
ODDS: Cork evens, Draw 10/1, Galway 10/11