What had promised to be a contest turned into a rout. At one stage, Meath were emerging from the shadows as serious contenders for the Sam Maguire Cup, the next they were suffering one of the county’s most damning humiliations.
While there was joy in abundance for Cork, and an amount of redemption after they had been written off by several Irish media outlets, they will know as they prepare for next month’s decider against the winners of Sunday’s second semi-final between Kerry and Dublin, that this was a bloodless coup.
Meath might have been deprived of the highly influential Anthony Moyles, yet their abject capitulation could never have been predicted. On most people’s All Star list, Stephen Bray found the occasion too much for him and he looked more like an also-ran as he kicked a succession of costly wides.
Not even Graham Geraghty could inspire his teammates this time. Hounded by a vigilant Cork defense in general, and by Noel O’Leary in particular, he struggled to make any sort of impact on the proceedings. The fact that O’Leary hit him with a box to the face during the first half can’t have helped.
Referee Brian Crowe saw fit to book O’Leary in the aftermath of he might have thought was a push, however, Crowe might now be asked to revise his decision in the light of video evidence which clearly showed the offending punch. If O’Leary was hit with a one-match ban, he would miss the final.
There has already been some speculation that the abrasive Geraghty got what was coming to him, and that O’Leary, who also has some previous form in this regard, could be shown some leniency.
That, at the time of writing, was Cork’s only worry following their comprehensive victory. Not alone did his players leave Meath floundering in their wake, but coach Billy Morgan also won the tactical battle hands down. By withdrawing the towering Michael Cussen from the target man role, he created more space for Daniel Goulding, Kevin McMahon and Donncha O’Connor.
Morgan, not untypically, also brought some levity to what was a surprisingly bland afternoon. Quick to round on journalists in his post-match interview for what he viewed as ill-informed pre-match comments, he spotted an adversary from the Irish Examiner and quickly relieved the hack of his tape recorder by shoving it down his tracksuit trousers.
The man from the Examiner demanded the safe return of the recorder from Morgan’s nether regions but within a couple of seconds, the coach was gone, exiting with an enigmatic “I’ll have to go lads” and leaving selector John Corcoran to pick up the pieces.
His Meath counterpart, Colm Coyle, perhaps might have wished for bit of the same bolshy attitude from some of his players, but he was still more sanguine than Morgan. “I never mind losing to a better team and that’s exactly what Cork were,” he said. “We blinked first, they got a lucky goal and once that went it was game over. We were nearly at the top of the hill, and now we’re rolling down and have to start all over again. But I’d still take a lot of positives out of the year.”
In the meantime, it has to be presumed that Croke Park will have more than barely 40,000 spectators for this weekend’s eagerly awaited showdown between Kerry and Dublin. With history, tradition and bragging rights at stake, it seems that whichever of these great football rivals prevails should have the beating of Cork in the final.
But Morgan and his team have certainly closed the gap. Kerry only scraped past Monaghan in the last round and still have to find a strong midfield partner for Darragh O Se, while uncertainty remains as to how Dublin will cope with such a big occasion.
As the expectation builds, there is hardly likely to be 10 points between the teams when the dust settles on Sunday.
Ireland’s first match in the rugby World Cup is not much more than two weeks away, and already two of the team’s key players will be missing when the green jerseys run out against Namibia in Bordeaux.
Shane Horgan damaged his knee during the warm-up before the recent game against Scotland, and last week, captain Brian O’Driscoll was the victim of a punch during a fiery contest with the French club team, Bayonne.
The injuries, before a ball is even kicked in anger, got us to thinking about the wisdom of over-exposing the players in the run-in to the tournament. In a sense, coach Eddie O’Sullivan is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Not much good if his side is ring-rusty before the critical pool games against France and Argentina, but not much good if a few of his most influential players are injured.
Whatever about the fixtures against Scotland, and against Italy in Belfast on Friday – both countries are also preparing for the World Cup – there had to be some doubts about an encounter with a club team who had nothing to lose and maybe a few high profile scalps to gain.
Bayonne, who hail from the Basque country in the south-west corner of France close to the Spanish border, have always had a reputation for sailing close to the wind, and it was difficult to see them rolling over in front of a superior Ireland team.
Not unexpectedly, the Irish won comfortably, but as the aggression quotient increased and a few scores were settled, O’Driscoll was punched off the ball by one of the Bayonne players, a second row from New Zealand called Mike Tewhata. As the captain’s eye swelled up like a balloon, it seemed as if the expected cheekbone fracture would put an end to his World Cup, but it later emerged that apart from a deep cut, the only other damage was to his sinus.
As if Ireland’s qualifying pool which includes France and Argentina isn’t demanding enough already with only two teams to progress, the thought of going in at the deep end without O’Driscoll would have been too much. Already Horgan is a doubt, and already David Wallace is struggling with an ankle injury, so the hope is that there will be no more doom and gloom following the game against Italy.
The French federation was quick to suspend Tewhata, and O’Driscoll was quick to say that he would gladly accept an apology from the New Zealander, however, one suspects that O’Sullivan is not so forgiving.
Denis Hickie has already announced that he will retire after the tournament citing a lack of appetite for the pro game – why couldn’t he have waited until afterwards to reveal his plans? – and while O’Driscoll nurses his wounds, there is this constant fear that should playmaker, Ronan O’Gara, suffer an injury, Ireland might as well stay at home.
Since the World Cup was instigated, the Irish have never won a game in the knockout stages of the competition. Right now, they won’t be too bothered about that statistic. O’Sullivan and his players will be happy to come through the Italy game unscathed, and probably happy come the end of September to have simply qualified from their fiercely competitive group.
Ireland’s leading showjumper, Jessica Kuerten, has invariably been one to speak her mind, and on the final day of last weekend’s European Championships in Germany she informed a TV reporter that there was a “pack of assholes in Ireland who are trying to give me a hard time”.
The outburst came after it had been revealed that one of her horses had tested positive for a banned substance last May. However, her husband and manager, Eckardt Kuerten, said that the substance was the lowest of the three grades officially recognised by the sport’s governing body, and that they had the option of returning the prize money and facing a fine, but chose not to.
“I never doped my horse, ever, and I’ll prove it,” added Jessica Keurten angrily. Her husband also claimed that the information regarding the positive test was leaked in order to damage her medal prospects at the European Championships.
All this came at the end of a controversial week during which Kuerten had asked her stables to be moved because she said they were “dirty”, however, a championship official said the request was made because she didn’t want her stable to be close to that of teammate Cian O’Connor.
O’Connor was stripped of his gold medal following a doping controversy at the last Olympic Games. Kuerten has never disguised her dislike of O’Connor, and said last week that she hadn’t spoken to him for two years. “I’ll ride with him, but I don’t have to speak with him,” she added.