This year’s All-Ireland quarter-final pairings haven’t produced the kind of drama engendered by the open draw that occurred in past years (It’s Cork! We’ve just drawn Donegal!). Even though we’ve known since winning the Connacht final that it was (literally) odds-on we’d be facing Cork on the August Bank Holiday weekend, it was only when they went out and beat Sligo on Saturday evening that it was finally confirmed that it was the Leesiders we’d be facing next, though it was inevitable from early on in that game how it was going to go. Now that we finally know for sure that it is Cork we’ll be up against, we can start to think about the challenge facing us next Sunday.
The first point I’d make relates to us rather than the opposition. I’ve said at various times since the start of this year that we needed to suspend any kind of judgment on the lads and our overall prospects for the year until the August Bank Holiday weekend. While that presupposed we’d still be standing then, my feeling was that after the monumental effort expended in coming so close to – and then missing out on – the big one two years running, it simply wasn’t reasonable to expect to see any kind of consistent form line from the team in the earlier part of this year.
The year we’ve seen from the lads has, I think, borne this out. Wobbly at the start of the league, flashes of form returning, great/awful against the Dubs, back in the league semis again, flat as a proverbial pancake once we got there, getting sucked into a dogfight in Hyde Park but then coolly shooting our way out of it, winning the Connacht final playing well within ourselves.
But none of this is all that important now. The key thing is that we’re still standing, one of the eight teams left as the All-Ireland Series gets underway. And once we get going against Cork, we’ll see pretty soon what kind of form we’re in.
It’s obvious that we need to step up a fair bit from how we’ve performed so far this year. I’d be reasonably confident this will happen, if only because we’ve done it every time so far under James Horan. Back in 2011 after an underwhelming Connacht final win over Roscommon, we upset the applecart spectacularly by dumping out defending champions Cork in the quarters; the following year having scraped by Sligo we fairly turned up the heat on Down at HQ and, of course, after that Connacht final mismatch against London last year we put Donegal to the sword in devastating fashion a few weeks later.
But past glories won’t win Sunday’s game for us. We need to turn up at Croke Park in the right frame of mind, ready for the toughest kind of battle. If that doesn’t materialise, then fine but there’s every chance it could and we need to be ready for whatever Brian Cuthbert’s charges throw at us.
There’s a huge danger in underestimating Cork. Like us, their form line going into this game won’t matter a jot once the ball is thrown in. While they haven’t been all that impressive in getting to the last eight, the most salient point to note is that they’re in the last eight and we’re in the way of their making it to the last four. The fact that they blew up in their league semi against Dublin, should have lost to Tipp and got whipped by Kerry is irrelevant and it won’t help us if things start to go awry for us on Sunday.
The last time we lost a quarter final bears this out. That was against Meath – an average enough Meath team too – back in 2009, which was also a match we went into as warm favourites. We hadn’t beaten Meath since the 1951 All-Ireland (we still haven’t – that 2009 quarter was our last meeting) but there was huge optimism going into that match that we’d win and possibly win well. Meath weren’t even all that good on the day but we still allowed (with considerable help from Joe McQuillan, it should be said) a very winnable match to slip from our grasp that day and once Meath got a whiff of the win in their nostrils they went for it.
Now, I’m not saying the same will happen again on Sunday. Our set-up now is light years ahead of the shambles it so often was back then (we won’t, I expect, have any “experts” linked to the team pronouncing that they’re the “fittest team in Ireland” between now and Sunday) and if we lose it’ll most likely be a simple case of Cork performing better than us on the day. The message, though, is clear – underestimate your opponent at your peril.
And it’s not as if Cork will have any in-built fear of us heading into Sunday’s clash. While that 2011 win is the most recent championship clash between the counties, it was also our first win in the championship over them for the best part of a hundred years. From 1989 onwards, our championship meetings with them invariably ended in defeat so that 2011 win for us was very much the exception rather than the norm.
It’s also the case that the Rebels’ starting fifteen next weekend is likely to have only have four or five of the team that lined out for them in the quarter-final three years ago. (Cadogan, Shields, Walsh and Kerrigan started for them in 2011, while Collins came on as a sub and one of the subs against Sligo, Goold, also started in 2011). So when we renew acquaintances with them on Sunday, it’s a very different Cork team we’ll be grappling with.
Every mention of Cork’s strengths focuses on their forwards and they certainly have players in this department who are capable of doing damage to us. But then everyone said the same about Roscommon and Galway too and the trick for us the next day will be to put Cork’s attackers on the same mean rations as we put our last two opponents. If we do that, we’ll be well on our way, not least given that we look far more formidable around the middle third. We look capable of dominating this sector on Sunday and this should be our aim from start to finish. Our less lauded forwards are well capable of notching the odd score or two and if we choke off Cork’s supply around the middle and can feeds our own guys with enough ammunition then it should be enough for us to register a winning score.
Bottom line is that we have the capability to win this one, but only if we play to our potential. Every match is a final for us now and every one carries the danger for us that it’ll be our final one of the year if we’re come into it half-cooked. Once the clock strikes four on Sunday, we’ll finally get to see where the lads are at and how well prepared they are for the rigours of knockout championship football, where everything is on the line. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m not anticipating any sense of disappointment in this regard. Roll on Sunday.