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Mark Coleman launches a sideline over the bar against Limerick. He scored three in the championship and also clipped over 0-5 from play. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Mark Coleman launches a sideline over the bar against Limerick. He scored three in the championship and also clipped over 0-5 from play. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
SOCIAL BOOKMARKS

U21 hurlers can keep the Rebel flag flying but need support at Nowlan Park

THEY could do without the pressure but Cork really need to fulfil their potential at U21 level and bridge a 20-year gap to their last All-Ireland.

Wexford are first up this Saturday at Nowlan Park and while Rory O’Connor is their most high-profile hurler they have a team that was good enough to come within a last-gasp goal of defeating Galway in the Leinster final. That provincial decider against the Tribe which was only decided at the death of extra time was the best U21 game of the year, which should put paid to any suggestion they’ll make up the numbers.

They also have the advantage of being underdogs and training collectively since their seniors lost the All-Ireland quarter-final.

Cork, by contrast, had the core of their team tied up with the quest for Liam McCarthy. Not just Shane Kingston, Darragh Fitzgibbon and Mark Coleman but Robbie O’Flynn, Tim O’Mahony, David Griffin and Billy Hennessy. Their keeper Ger Collins deputised for his older brother Patrick, who was injured, as sub to Anthony Nash up in Croke Park.

Darragh Fitzgibbon and Dan Morrissey of Limerick. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Darragh Fitzgibbon and Dan Morrissey of Limerick. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

That’s no way to gear up for an All-Ireland semi-final and it’s set up for a Wexford ambush if Denis Ring’s charges are below par. On paper though, Cork clearly have the better team.

Hopefully, even though a six-day turnaround is still short, Cork’s marquee performers will have processed the disappointment of the late collapse against Limerick by Saturday. Apart from Fitzgibbon, who was sick on the night, the big guns were unstoppable in the Munster final against Tipp, which was played the Wednesday after the seniors beat Clare.

The difference then, of course, was Cork had momentum and were at home, but Ring and his selectors are experienced enough to focus the U21s in this one. Many of the team are still haunted by their loss to Limerick in the Munster minor semi-final three years while other members of the panel have the motivation of agonising underage defeats in the past two seasons.

They can’t afford any excuses as the majority of this team won’t be involved in 2018 when U21 drops to U20, in line with the football and switching minor from U18 to U17. It isn't a change I’d endorse as it’s tinkering with some of the most enjoyable championships traditionally, but we’ll have to give it time to judge.

For now, there’s an U21 crown up for grabs and the ideal stage for rookies to audition for the senior team next year. While Cork could, and maybe should, have beaten Limerick in Croker the defeat highlighted the urgent need for John Meyler to strengthen his squad.

In defence there will surely be opportunities in next year’s league and for Griffin, Eoghan Murphy and Billy Hennessy shutting down Meyler’s native Wexford would be the perfect way to put their hands up. That’s not to criticise Cork’s established senior defenders like Damien Cahalane, Colm Spillane and Chris Joyce, which is far too easy this week, but cover is needed at the back, of that there’s no doubt.

Billy Hennessy has excelled for the U21s. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Billy Hennessy has excelled for the U21s. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Deccie Dalton, powerful in the air, very aggressive and an impeccable free-taker, and Conor Cahalane – who came off the bench around the middle against Waterford and Tipp – have shown a bit of cutting. They’re bulkier and more old-school than the majority of Cork’s modern forwards and therefore exactly the type of hurlers who might offer variety up the field.

It’ll only be the hardcore in Nowlan Park this weekend, though the game is live on TG4 at 4pm, but a win would give everyone a pick-me-up after the Limerick loss. Across the board, Cork hurling has improved to a staggering degree since the nadir of 2015-‘16 when they didn’t make much of a mark at minor, U21 or senior. They now need to go from All-Ireland contenders to winners.

Whatever transpires the county board must be conscious of the demands on the inter-county contingent when they are scheduling the programme for the rest of the club championship. It’s been a frustrating wait for the clubs with their seasons on hold, and dual commitments will be tricky for the board, but staggering the big club games will lead to more vibrant competitions, which is better for Cork hurling.

Just taking the senior tier there are more contenders than ever, with holders Imokilly, the Glen, Sars, Douglas and Midleton loaded with serious hurlers. That’s without mentioning Blackrock, UCC, Erin’s Own or Na Piarsaigh. It’ll be a tough task to keep every team happy but with a decent spread of matches, we’ll be in for a thrilling run to the county finals.

Before that, we’ve the Clare-Galway replay to look forward to. The drawn game was a belter, perhaps better than Cork-Limerick by virtue of the fact it wasn’t followed by a bleak trek back down to Leeside.

 Shane O’Donnell celebrates a wonder point against Galway in extra time last Saturday. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Shane O’Donnell celebrates a wonder point against Galway in extra time last Saturday. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

The most interesting facet of a gripping contest was Clare’s use of the sweeper as an attacking weapon. Undoubtedly Galway should have pushed up tighter on Colm Galvin once he started picking out neat passes after his redeployment but like Cork a day later they probably felt they were still in command with the clock winding down in normal time.

The big difference for the Tribe in the additional 20 minutes was they had the depth in their squad to remain competitive, even when they lost Joe Canning and Gearoid McInerney to injury. The Banner also got a return from their bench and the replay is wide open.