HE HASN’T always enjoyed playing for Cork against Waterford, especially in these last few years. A quick look at the recent head-to-head record will explain why.
Tipperary and Kilkenny have had some absorbing September battles but no two counties have given more entertainment than the Rebels and the Deise over the last decade.
They’ve clashed 11 times in the championship since 2002 and each match has been an epic. Only twice has there been more than a puck of a ball between them at full-time.
Cork won three-in-a-row between 2005 and ’06, but the balance of power has shifted east. In their five meetings since ’07, Waterford are undefeated.
Brian Murphy’s first taste of championship action against Waterford has gone down in folklore; regarded as the greatest Munster final of all.
Semple Stadium was heaving for the 2004 decider. Having narrowly lost the previous year’s All-Ireland final to Kilkenny, Cork were firm favourites to retain their Munster crown. When John Mullane was sent off early in the second-half with Cork two points ahead, the odds shortened again.
Murphy was at the heart of the controversy. The Cork corner-back hit the deck after an off-the-ball scuffle with Mullane, and Waterford were down to 14.
Mullane’s exit was the turning point, but it was Waterford who gathered the momentum. They were Munster champions again with only a point to spare, their first provincial final victory over Cork in 45 years.
“That game is remembered as a classic and it probably was for the spectators,” says Murphy. “But it certainly wasn’t enjoyable to lose a Munster final like that.
“We have had some great games against Waterford over the years and the fans do look forward to them, but being on the losing side in a great game means nothing to you.
“Even when you win big games, I think they’re things you probably won’t enjoy until you look back after you retire. They’re high-intensity games, it’s lung-busting stuff so you can’t really take it all in and enjoy it at the time.
“We haven’t been beating them lately. They haven’t lost to us since 2006 so that’s something we’re very keen to change.”
Cork’s opportunity to do that comes in Thurles in Sunday’s All-Ireland quarter-final. Both counties having come through the back-door after Munster Championship losses to Tipp.
It’s Brian Murphy’s 10th season on the Cork panel. The objectives have changed since it all started for the man from Rathcormac, just 10 miles west of the Waterford border.
In each of his first four seasons with the county’s elite, Cork reached the All-Ireland final. They haven’t been there since. The Rebels slipped down hurling’s hierarchy after a turbulent couple of seasons under Gerald McCarthy.
Denis Walsh had three years in charge but couldn’t halt the decline. Expectations weren’t high on Leeside coming into 2012, but a decent League campaign under Jimmy Barry-Murphy got Cork fans wondering again.
Barry-Murphy wants to build a new young team to bring success back to Cork, as he did during his 1996-2000 reign. He’s put trust in the likes of Darren Sweetnam, Conor Lehane and William Egan. Of the side that started Cork’s win over Wexford last week, only Murphy, Niall McCarthy and Tom Kenny played in the 2006 All-Ireland final. The average age of the team was 24.
“It’s been a hard year to review. We’ve had lots of ups and downs. One of our aims at the start of the year was to get to the League final. We did that but got a bit of a hammering against Kilkenny on the day,” Brian Murphy says.
“But the management got us back into a positive frame of mind. We were very disappointed to lose to Tipp but there were positives to take from it. We have a lot to work on but the main thing is that we’re still in it.”
Overcoming Offaly and Wexford hasn’t really shown if Cork have learnt from that loss to Tipperary. They were beaten by a point, but with Tipp down to 14 men for most of the second-half, the game was there for the taking.
Even if Liam McCarthy is beyond them this year, seeing off Waterford to reach an All-Ireland semi-final would represent real progress. But Jimmy Barry-Murphy has been working hard to convince the Cork public that 2012 is about performances, not results.
Brian Murphy says: “I think people in Cork realise that. The County Board gave Jimmy and his management team a three-year term, which was important for the development of the team.
“We’re obviously not going out to lose any games but we have been experimenting. The management are trying to get the right blend, looking at what works and what doesn’t work.
“It will take time for us to get to the level of the big four or five counties who have been consistent. That’s the reality of hurling in Cork at the moment.”
Inter-county hurling was a breeze for Murphy when he first broke on to the scene. His first three seasons as a regular yielded two All-Irelands and two Munster titles. He was also Young Hurler of the Year in 2004.
But the medals have since dried up. Cork haven’t won silverware since beating Tipperary in the Munster final six years ago. Murphy is keen to end the drought before he hangs up his boots. Although he only turned 30 last weekend, retirement isn’t far away.
“This is a young man’s game, you don’t see many fellas over 30 playing anymore. Tony Browne is an exception; he’s a fantastic player, I don’t know how he does it. But I wouldn’t see myself playing in three or four years, not a hope. Fellas who play into their mid-30s are a dying breed.”
If Cork’s season is to continue beyond Sunday afternoon, Murphy knows there’s an onus on him and his colleagues in defence to be less generous. While the Rebels have been posting high tallies, they’ve leaked 5-55 in their three championship games.
“If you’re a defender and the opposition are getting scores, you’re going to take it personally. That’s one of the things we realise we have to work on. Wexford and Offaly showed up a few things we’ve had to look at.
“Having a week between those two games maybe didn’t allow us to work on those things, but Waterford have a serious forward line and we could be ripped to shreds if we don’t get those things right.
“The likes of John Mullane and Seamus Prendergast can do serious damage so it will have to be a collective effort to cut down the space and get as tight on them as we can.”
The bookies fancy Cork, but in keeping with recent tradition, this one is likely to be decided by a narrow margin.
“It’s great to have it on in Thurles,” said Murphy. “There should be a massive crowd there so the atmosphere will be unbelievable.”
Can that crowd expect another cracker between the Munster neighbours?
“We haven’t beaten them the last five times we’ve played them so even if it’s the dourest game of all time on Sunday, I won’t mind as long as we win it.”