Death or glory for Cork and Waterford on decision day in Munster

Eamonn Sweeney

The stakes are sky high for Cork and Waterford today. Failure is not an option for either, though it’s inevitable for at least one of them.

Their meetings with Tipperary and Clare are not the most important matches the Rebels and the Déise have ever played. But they may be the most important matches they’ve ever played at this time of year. Early elimination could have disastrous long-term consequences.

Cork’s extraordinary resolve in Walsh Park last week came about in part because they were playing to save not just the present, but the past too.

Séamus Harnedy’s jubilant punch of the air as he nailed a late clinching point was a defining image of the day. Behind that gesture, surely, lay his knowledge that the expected defeat would have led to this Cork team being once again dismissed as losers, betrayers of a glorious tradition, a brass generation and, above all, guys who go missing when the going gets tough.

There is no more slandered team than the current Cork hurlers and much of the criticism has been unfair. Consider Harnedy himself, as wholehearted a player as has ever donned the county colours with a string of fine performances behind him in the past decade.

Harnedy, Pat Horgan and Conor Lehane have been on the go since the Rebels came within a puck of an All-Ireland title in 2013. Damien Cahalane joined in when they lifted the Munster crown in 2014 and Mark Coleman, Darragh Fitzgibbon, Luke Meade and Shane Kingston came on board as another provincial crown was added in 2017.

Those victories, and the ones which led Cork back to the All-Ireland final last year, were hugely emotional occasions. On those days the bond between the Rebel team and fans seemed to have few equals. This side has given a lot of pleasure to its supporters.

But tradition means Cork teams are judged by high standards. Domhnall O’Donovan’s miracle point denied them an All-Ireland in 2013 and Nickie Quaid’s miracle save probably did in 2018. The county’s longest ever Liam MacCarthy famine overshadows everything.

The timid exit almost universally predicted this day last week would have reinforced the tendency to see the era of Horgan and Harnedy as one of nothing but failure. Coming back from the dead by winning in Waterford and Thurles would show that this Cork team’s lack of fighting spirit has been greatly exaggerated.

Qualification would prevent the trashing of not just this team’s past but of Cork’s future. That future should be bright. All-Ireland under 20 victories in 2020 and 2021 were the first since 1998 and last year’s minor triumph a first in 20 years. They seemed proof that a new approach at county board level was bearing fruit and also prompted thoughts of how Limerick had built on the under 21 victories of 2015 and 2017.

But Cork’s rich crop of promising youngsters need a settled set-up to come into. Early dismissal from Munster could send the county into meltdown mode with an upsurge of the despair which has been one of Cork’s main enemies in recent years. That’s why victory is imperative today.

Should Waterford be knocked out today, their despair will probably be even greater than Cork’s. In a county cursed by disappointment for so long, this might be the unkindest cut of all.

Liam Cahill’s reign promised to free the Déise from the burden of history by scotching the notion that an inherent flakiness at the heart of Waterford hurling will always doom them to dash the expectations of their supporters.But last Sunday all the old flaws were resurrected as composure and confidence leached away from the home team in the face of the Cork challenge. Their fate is out of their hands now. They need a big favour from Tipperary to prevent a colossal and unexpected failure.

Such a failure would be particularly damaging because Cahill appeared to have plotted a methodical course to the top with steady progress being made until Waterford had become the main challengers to Limerick.

A May departure will represent a backward step which puts the whole Cahill project in jeopardy. The reputations of players who had seemed poised to spearhead a serious attack on the All-Ireland title took a big hit last week.

Austin Gleeson’s inability to control himself seems a tragic flaw in a great player; Dessie Hutchinson was sadly anonymous when the team needed him most; Stephen Bennett and Jamie Barron looked pale shadows of their normal selves, while league revelation Carthach Daly has found the championship tough going.

Waterford’s lethargy in the championship, which almost cost them dear against Tipperary too, is something of a mystery. Now all they can do is strive for the complete performance which has eluded them so far and hope for good news from elsewhere.

The third participants in today’s Sergio Leone style three-cornered shoot-out are under much less pressure. Before last weekend Tipperary appeared already out of contention. They could look forward to a dead rubber against Cork and back on memories of gallant defeats against Limerick and Waterford.

Tipp’s chances of making it through remain slim, as it’s hard to imagine an already qualified Clare team going full tilt against Waterford with a Munster final to come. Yet the possibility of a great escape makes their tie against Cork more meaningful than might have been expected.

The unexpected reprieve is not without its dangers for Colm Bonnar’s team. The credit gained by the performances against Waterford and Limerick could be lost were the Premier to suffer a heavy home defeat by a highly motivated Cork.

A home win against the Rebels would be a stirring end to the season, even if it didn’t bring about qualification. It would confirm Bonnar as the man to take Tipp forward. A poor display, on the other hand, might prompt thoughts of a Liam Cahill homecoming, particularly if Waterford fall short.

Limerick remain masters of all they survey. Yet the past couple of weeks, with its off-field trouble, its surprise misfire against Clare and John Kiely’s apparent conviction that everyone is out to get his team, suggests a slight vulnerability. The champions’ Munster rivals may fancy a second crack at them in a way they wouldn’t have in 2020 or 2021.

But first they have to get out of the toughest province. For Cork and Waterford everything is on the line in Thurles and Ennis.

These 70 minutes will feel like years because they’ll matter for years.

Mansfield’s Irish contingent are planning for play-off success

Mansfield Town’s remarkable run to Saturday’s League Two play-off final against Port Vale has a strong Irish connection.

The only goal of their 1-0 second leg win over Northampton, which gave them a 3-1 aggregate victory, came from former Derry City player Stephen McLaughlin. The Donegal-born left-back made over 150 league appearances with Southend United before joining Mansfield.

Pulling the strings in midfield for The Stags was the remarkable Stephen Quinn, now 36 and completing his 17th campaign since moving over from St Pat’s. Alongside him was John Joe O’Toole who 14 years ago lined out with Quinn on an Irish under 21 team beaten 3-0 by England.

Mansfield haven’t been above the bottom flight since 2002-2003 and in late October were in 23rd spot, just three points off last place.

Nottingham Forest also managed an incredible turnaround. After eight games Forest were bottom of the Championship and had just sacked Chris Hughton. But Steve Cooper has steered them to a play-off final against Huddersfield Town this day week.

Tennis authorities put to shame over lack of solidarity with Ukrainians

Given the atrocities currently being perpetrated by Vladimir Putin’s forces in the Ukraine, the decision of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and the Association of Tour Professionals (ATP), which runs the men’s game, to strip Wimbledon of its world ranking points for banning Russian players is an obscenity. Meanwhile, Poland’s brilliant Iga Swiatek, who won last week’s Italian Open, continues to wear ribbons in the Ukrainian colours. “I know many players played with the ribbons at the beginning of the war where all the fuss was a little bit more loud,” she says. “I realised that some of them took them off, which is for me pretty weird because there is still war, there is still people suffering.” The tennis authorities apparently feel protecting the earnings of Russian millionaires is more important than showing solidarity with suffering Ukrainian civilians. The women’s world number one puts them to shame.

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