Champions Experience Divergent Fortunes
The fortunes of the two holders of the GAA's premier tropies could not have been more contrasting yesterday, as both Tyrone and Cork began the defence of their football and hurling titles respectively. The prospect of a third All-Ireland in four years for the Ulstermen seems incredibly remote as they survey the wreckage of their now expired Ulster Championship campaign, while Cork looked imperious in dispatching Clare at Semple Stadium.
If you hadn't seen it, it would be difficult to conjure in the imagination a game as mean-spirited and ugly as Derry victory over their neighbours in Omagh. However, if you have watched much Ulster football in recent years the nature of the match was pretty familiar. The success of Derry's gameplan in smothering Tyrone is transparently evident in the fact that the All-Ireland champions mustered only 5 points in a woeful display.
While Derry had their own injury problems, the stripping from Tyrone of such peerless attacking forces as Peter Canavan, Brian McGuigan and Stephen O'Neill has left them looking pale and surprisingly impotent. With only O'Neill of that triumvirate to return, the travails of a qualifier campaign which begins at the earliest possible stage are foreboding following this dispiriting, humiliating defeat.
Still, their other great provincial rivals, Armagh, made it all the way to the All-Ireland final in 2003 following a similar early ambush by Monaghan and, with such painful scars to heal, a couple of soft fixtures far from the sturm und drang of Ulster should offer the best possible recuperation.
Cork, on the other hand, had no such problems. In the end Ben O'Connor was left on the bench following his recovery from injury, but an opening ten minute salvo from Clare aside, it was as if Cork had simply pressed pause in September 2005, and then resumed from where they left off. It was all there, clever puck-outs from Donal Og Cusack, the dominating athleticism of that magnificient half-back line, the searing running of Tom Kenny and Jerry O'Connor in midfield and a typically impish and clinical display from Joe Deane.
Deane doesn't seem to receive the attention that a player of his consistency and lethal scoring ability deserves, but for the duration of this current Cork team's eminence in hurling he has been a key weapon in their armoury. His metronomic precision with frees aside, he works so well as a foil to Brian Corcoran since the latter's return to the inter-county scene and, given the lack of scoring contribution from the half-forwards in particular, is as important a factor in their success as their fabled half-backs.
For me, however, the moment of the day was undoubtedly Tom Kenny's point in the first half, a move which began deep in the Cork half, but achieved fruition following a run by Kenny through a small gap in the Clare midfield that led one to suspect that the Corkman had some form of rocket-powered boots on, as Banner defenders burned up in his wake.
They won't be the last suffer that fate this year, it seems.