AMIDST THE WONDER and chaos of last summer’s Munster hurling championship, one line rang true.
Home advantage counted.
Two games into 2019 and that 2018 pattern has been ripped up. The upshot of the early results is that it makes the challenge facing Cork and Waterford today more daunting as they take on buoyant forces in Limerick and Tipperary.
As counties adjusted to a switch in format from a season unfolding over four games to a round-robin fixture programme that swelled that number to 11, the importance of thriving on your local patch grew in significance.
Remove the neutral location of Semple Stadium for last July’s final and 10 matches were played in 2018. Clare and Limerick utilised home comforts to win their two games in Cusack Park and Gaelic Grounds. Cork didn’t lose in Páirc Uí Chaoimh either, taking three points out of four.
Waterford could not be bracketed in the home category as they were incapable of hosting games, a factor that contributed to their winless run.
That left Tipperary as the only outfit to succumb at home. They drew with Cork before losing out to Clare and that match, balanced on a second-half knife edge, swung away from them when Jake Morris rapped a shot off the upright at one end and Ian Galvin retorted by firing a strike to the net at the other. Fine margins.
That trend seemed to provide a key backdrop before the 2019 model commenced last Sunday, a reminder to teams of the importance of protecting their home arenas in the second season of this structure.
No two counties in Munster have had their stadia in the spotlight as glaringly as Cork and Waterford. But despite the provisions of a familiar venue, the number of home losses and away wins doubled last Sunday afternoon.
The doors of Páirc Uí Chaoimh had been shut since early February as the storm raged over the expense of their refurbishment project and the failure of the pitch surface to adequately stand up to 70 minutes of action. Walsh Park had been declared a no-entry zone last summer, forcing Waterford into a nomadic existence as they toured the province.
Both pitches looked resplendent last Sunday afternoon but there were nothing for the locals to cheer at the final whistle. Aside from a phase of control before half-time, Cork saw the Tipperary attack wreak havoc and inflict a seven-point beating. Waterford rushed to the finish line too late against Clare and were pipped by a point.
The upshot of the 2018 pattern being ripped apart is the gradient facing Cork and Waterford has got altogether steeper. We’re only one round in but the complexion of the championship is immediately altered by the reversals suffered by home teams.
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Cork had been unbeaten in eight games in Munster, garnering two titles in the process, a run stretching back to May 2016. They lost out at the hands of Tipperary then and their season unravelled as they were dumped out of the qualifiers by Wexford. A response of greater poise and defiance is needed.
Waterford have now not won a match in Munster since their June 2016 semi-final against Clare. They’ve suffered a lot of damage since with six defeats – half of those emphatic losses by margins of 9, 13 and 21 points – and a draw.
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Neither side has had much time to unscramble their minds. Rather than stewing on the setback, the onus this week will be on mounting a response.
Both John Meyler and Páraic Fanning have chopped and changed their starting fifteens. Four changes apiece, newcomers like Robert Downey and Callum Lyons pressed into action for their championship bows. Cork targeting their half-back line by removing two-thirds of it, Waterford zoning in on their attack by bringing in a trio of new faces.
Bubbles O’Dwyer and Tony Kelly inflicted damage on both rearguards with their roving centre-forward roles last Sunday. How Cork and Waterford move to protect the heart of their defences today will be critical. Instruct Mark Ellis and Tadhg de Búrca to man the central channel or follow a forward that may roam?
Up front Cork posted a healthy total of 1-24 against Tipperary but the contribution from their attack was uneven, the scores weighed heavily toward Patrick Horgan. They have no debate over free-taking whereas Waterford’s dilemma persists. Stephen Bennett had a fine league but Pauric Mahony’s razor-sharpness is required and he’s likely to thrive with the responsibility.
Defeat for either will scupper their hopes of a Munster final place but will not necessarily torpedo their chances of finishing third in a ferociously competitive province.
Four points on the board may be enough to enter the All-Ireland series in a low-key fashion and prolong their summer. Cork and Waterford will both have two games left after today, including that Saturday night showdown on 8 June where they will cross paths, in order to reach that four point mark.
But there needs to be signs of an upturn in performance levels in order to invest faith that they can achieve that.
After slipping up at home, the retort on the road needs to be a defiant one.
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