Blow for talented young Cork players as minor and U20 games are now on hold

Blow for talented young Cork players as minor and U20 games are now on hold

Cork minor hurler William Buckley fires over a point against Clare at Semple Stadium. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane

THEY say you should play every game like it could be your last.

That was straightforward enough for the Cork minor and U20 hurlers last weekend. With the GAA hanging on by a thread as the government debated increased Covid restrictions, the young players didn't need any added incentive to perform in the Blood and Bandage geansaí.

It turned out to be exactly the case, as it was confirmed on Wednesday by a government official that only GAA senior inter-county games can proceed during new Level 5 Covid-19 restrictions. The GAA had been hoping to complete the underage provincial and All-Ireland series over the coming weeks, with Cork into two hurling semi-finals and also waiting to travel to Kerry for the minor football. 

If the U17 game against Clare was unusual last Saturday, the U20 clash on Monday was utterly surreal. 

The minors at least had a parent each in the stand, well spread out by the stewards, which created a bit of atmosphere. Good scores generated cheers and there was the usual quota of cries of 'ah ref...' The standard was decent, even if lowering the grade from U18 has taken from the physicality.

In Tralee, it was grimmer. For once that isn't a slight on the Kingdom! The Munster County and stewards from Kerry ran the game very efficiently but as there were no parents permitted the near-empty Austin Stack Park was eerily quiet at times.

The very promising Quirke brothers from Midleton, minor Alex and U20 Sam, started but while one of their parents could attend Semple Stadium they had to wait in the car in Tralee and watch the stream via the Munster Council website. Those are the rules but sum up these odd times. 

Cork minor hurler Alex Quirke pops a pass. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane
Cork minor hurler Alex Quirke pops a pass. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane

Kerry worked like dogs in the opening exchanges and led early on. Cork, unbackable favourites and missing a clutch of starters, didn't have the right attitude or work-rate to counter that.

Cork played their way into the game, Daire O'Leary immense at wing-back, Tommy O'Connell and Shane O'Regan clipping a few good scores, but this was closer to a challenge than championship.

It felt like sporting purgatory really, as the 6.30pm throw-on Monday was in advance of Level 5 being confirmed and the impact on GAA being revealed.

Now to be fair, Cork and Kerry in hurling is never going to be a classic. As the garda at the checkpoint in Baile Bhúirne said on the way over the border, 'it's more than Level 5 we'll need if Cork can't beat Kerry in hurling'. 

The Kingdom came up from the B grade last season and justified the step-up. 

Cork manager Pat Ryan said after: "Kerry is a smaller hurling area but they've huge pride in their hurling and also in wearing the Kerry jersey, whether it's hurling or football. They worked very hard and played some nice hurling too. It doesn't matter what stars or better-known players you have if you don't have work-rate."

Kerry's Colin Walsh is tackled by Daire O’Leary. Picture: Domnick Walsh
Kerry's Colin Walsh is tackled by Daire O’Leary. Picture: Domnick Walsh

He also acknowledged his team had a lot of room for improvement before meeting Limerick in the semi-final. Blarney trio Shane Barrett, Pádraig Power and Declan Hanlon sat the game out and would upgrade the line-up, along with Daire Connery Seán Twomey, whose season has been pockmarked with injury which was a great pity after his excellence for the Cork U20s last year.

Ciarán Joyce had a super game in Tralee, following up on previously excellent displays in the Harty Cup with Midleton CBS and in helping Castlemartyr to a county final. Watergrasshill's Daire O'Leary lanced over 0-4 from wing-back, but all the defenders did well.

Brian Roche was very lively, scoring 1-3, and Kanturk's Brian O'Sullivan and sub Brian Hayes were heavily involved in the latter stages. There's a lot of potential in the Cork panel. No doubt.

Cork U20 hurler Eoin Carey. Picture: Domnick Walsh
Cork U20 hurler Eoin Carey. Picture: Domnick Walsh

Cork lost the U21 All-Ireland in 2018 and then the U20 decider last season, having also been caught at the death in the Munster final. If they beat Limerick they'll most likely face Tipp again, who are paired with Waterford.

The minors are also into a last four clash with Limerick. Tipp-Waterford is also the other semi. 

Donal Óg Cusack had his team structured to create space in attack and add bodies to the middle third and it largely worked.

Like the U20s they can up the gears further. Eoin Downey and Alex Quirke were excellent all through against Clare, with Ben O'Connor, Brian Keating, Ben Cunningham and subs Jack Leahy and William Buckley driving Cork on in the second half.

It'll be interesting to see where they go from here. Hopefully their matches can resume after the current six-week Covid-pause.

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