Joe Kernan: Best teams are certainly not usual suspects for Championship glory
The Championship season might still be in its infancy but three teams in particular competing in different competitions have just sent out an emphatic message to every other side in the country that still harbours viable title-winning ambitions at provincial or national level.
The footballers of Down and the hurlers representing Antrim and Cork have forcibly reminded us all as to just what it takes to earn credibility, respect and indeed admiration in the white heat of Championship action.
If Down and Cork are today deservedly anticipating a further leg of their respective championship journeys, then Antrim’s reputation and pride as a hurling stronghold have not been tarnished in the slightest following their heartbreaking extra-time defeat by Offaly in the hugely competitive Leinster Championship.
They will now focus on their Ulster final appearance and a voyage through the Qualifiers while Down and Cork will step up their own pursuit of provincial honours against a rather more high-profile background.
While Down revealed inherent character, considerable skill and a generous ration of tactical prowess in overcoming Donegal in their Ulster Football Championship tie, they also showed that they are anxious to follow in the footsteps of their illustrious predecessors who 50 years ago brought the Sam Maguire Cup back across the border for the first time.
Manager James McCartan is certainly not prepared to settle for promotion to Division One as the fruits of this season’s labours — he has clearly shown that he is after bigger prizes.
And the demeanour of his side overall allied to the stunning performances of Benny Coulter, Martin Clarke, Danny Hughes, Kalum King and Damien Rafferty against a Donegal side that flattered to deceive suggests that there is much more in the Mourne tank particularly as skipper Ambrose Rogers has still to return to the frame for the forthcoming clash with Tyrone.
Yet if Down flashed a message of hope then Cork hurlers bellowed out total defiance in overcoming Tipperary in the Munster Championship.
Their proclamation has echoed within just about every other county in the land that is seeking encouragement and inspiration in their championship endeavours.
Having been engulfed in controversy of late that distracted attention away almost completely from events on the field during the National League, Cork decided to do what all sides at odds with themselves should — they took a good look in the mirror.
And, as their long-serving stalwart Sean Og O hAilpin observed, they did not like what they saw.
The outcome was that Cork promptly took stock of themselves and in overcoming hot favourites Tipperary by 10 points they emphasised just what can be achieved through collective commitment, total focus on the job in hand and a willingness to put the team before self.
Well accustomed in the recent past to making the headlines for off-field disputes, the team eventually came to terms with themselves and now suddenly find they are within touching distance of a Munster title.
And you can rest assured that after that performance by Denis Walsh’s side last Sunday, Kilkenny will be shifting uneasily on their All Ireland throne.
Indeed, Cork have set the template for all those sides who feel that the odds are currently against them — remember, Cork were the underdogs against Tipperary.
Yet the communal spirit that infiltrated the squad was transported onto the park in spectacular style and you can be sure that this week in training many managers in both codes will have been preaching the gospel according to Cork.
And those teams that are prepared to take a leaf from the book of the Down footballers or the Cork or Antrim hurlers will not be too far away when the honours are being disbursed.