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Cats set to kill off Cork

Brian Cody

THIS reporter was in Nowlan Park for the corresponding league fixture four years ago – a massacre of biblical proportions. For a whole variety of reasons we don't expect a repeat; we certainly don't anticipate a 27-point margin at the final whistle.

The most obvious reason is that the circumstances of 2009 no longer pertain. Back then, the greatest team of all time were at their zenith: three-in-a-row was already in the bag and they spent that league campaign ruthlessly demolishing a handful of their supposed closest rivals.

 

Complex

Their greatest statement of intent, however, was reserved for Cork – their only near-equals of the noughties, the one team which didn't suffer an inferiority complex in the company of black-and-amber.

Crucially, though, that patched-together Cork squad was utterly ill-prepared for the Kilkenny juggernaut that awaited. Denis Walsh had just been appointed manager and most of his players were returning from the third 'strike' to assail Cork during that most divisive of decades.

Kilkenny, subsequently depicted as hurling's answer to the 'Stepford Wives' in Donal óg Cusack's book, were different: they didn't do picket lines. For them, the county board was never the enemy but Cork were, and that April afternoon they scented red blood and went for the jugular with, dare we say it, lust.

The fans were no less voracious. Almost 15,000 had squeezed into Nowlan Park and, at half-time, they arose in almost deafening acclamation of their merciless heroes. The final scoreline was 4-26 to 0-11. Gulp.

Four years on, what has changed? In some respects, not a lot – Kilkenny are still All-Ireland champions, this time seeking three-in-a-row as opposed to that epochal four-timer of '09. Given all the discord that went before, Cork were never going to win the All-Ireland that year and many will argue that the same applies today.

The big difference with Cork, however, is that virtually all of the old brigade – the generation of Cusack, ó hAilpín, Gardiner et al – have departed, whether by choice or managerial decree. Jimmy Barry Murphy is now in the second year of his second coming and hasn't balked at making big, even ruthless calls, with one eye seemingly trained on making Cork a serious All-Ireland contender in a couple of years' time, whatever about this summer.

Kilkenny, meanwhile, have won their last two league matches (quelle surprise there) but this was only after losing their first two and, even in belated victory, they aren't playing with the 'hurling immortals' swagger that set them miles apart from the rest during that '09 league.

There are perfectly valid reasons for this. Injury is the most obvious one: no manager, not even Brian Cody, can seamlessly overcome the absence of marquee players such as Henry Shefflin especially, TJ Reid, Michael Rice (until last weekend) or his entire first-choice full-back line (as happened in Ennis last Sunday).

The team itself, or certainly the key pillars of same, are getting that bit older and the mileage is high. The field of pretenders appears to be closing.

They are still the best around at inflicting maximum punishment via the green-flag route; and yet it's instructive that they've relied on goals (two against Waterford, both attributable to goalkeeping gaffes, and three against Clare) to eke out wins where otherwise they would surely have lost.

In summary, Kilkenny remain the team to beat this summer but right now, in their depleted state, they are far from invincible and the crazily congested Division 1A table confirms as much.

 

Polarised

Entering the last round of fixtures tomorrow, it is all to play for with all six teams facing the polarised twin spectre of advancing to a league semi-final – or a relegation play-off.

Cork, who have made four changes in personnel, are tied on four points with their hosts but have a superior scoring difference . . . ergo a draw would see them finish ahead of Kilkenny and might be sufficient to seal a play-off berth, depending on results elsewhere.

In reality, though, both teams must press for the win and presumably both will, if only as a a safeguard from demotion. Cork's battling draw in Galway and Kilkenny's recent results graph suggest it could be close, and certainly not 27 points . . . but when it's all to play for, you can usually trust one team to come up with the answers. Cody's.

BOYLESPORTS ODDS: Kilkenny 1/3, Draw 10/1, Cork 3/1

VERDICT: Kilkenny


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