A PREMIER Senior Championship group comprising of four West Cork clubs could be the highlight of the local GAA’s 2020 calendar.
Next season’s Cork football championships will see a radical overhaul of the traditional knockout and losers round format dispensed with. Instead, an opening phase involving three group games followed by a knockout phase involving a single qualifier from the colleges and divisions will determine the 2020 senior football champions.
As welcome as the change in format is, there is little doubt what West Cork GAA clubs and supporters will be talking about during the winter months.
A ‘group of death’ made up of four Carbery divisional clubs should make for a series of intriguing local derbies. Carbery Rangers, Castlehaven, Newcestown and Ilen Rovers will battle it out in Group 2 of the Cork Premier Senior. The top two progress to the quarter-finals along with their Group 1 and 3 counterparts plus whichever team emerges from the colleges and divisions section.
Perennial challengers Rosscarbery and Castlehaven have been joined by an improving Ilen Rovers and the division’s standout performers from 2019, Newcestown.
Few would have picked the dual club to reach the last four of the Cork SFC yet that’s the accolade Tom Wilson’s side achieved. Recovering from an opening round loss to Clonakilty, Newcestown rebounded in style and accounted for Valley Rovers, Mallow and Ilen Rovers before losing to Duhallow in the last four.
It was a phenomenal run, especially considering the Carbery side’s senior hurling commitments and underlined Newcestown’s footballing pedigree. Add to that recent county U21 and minor football and hurling successes and Newcestown have every chance of causing an upset or two in an all-West Cork group.
Ilen Rovers are another West Cork club that enjoyed a resurgent 2019 highlighted by a 2-9 to 1-9 defeat of Carbery Rangers in the opening round of the senior championship. Newcestown ended Rovers’ interest in the county but not before a 2-10 to 0-15 victory over Douglas in the Rochestown Park Division 3 league final showed Flor O’Driscoll’s squad remain on an upward curve.
“Last year we were very disappointed to be down in Division 3 as you want to be playing at the highest level you can,” commented Flor O’Driscoll.
“Division 3 proved very competitive and we played some really good teams in it. That’s why the Division 3 final with Douglas was such a great game to be involved in. It could have gone either way, but our character shone through.” Ilen will need that type of character and the likes of Stephen Leonard, Sean O’Donovan, Dan Mac Eoin, Matt Bushe and Aaron O’Sullivan delivering consistent performances in three difficult group clashes.
Yet, despite Newcestown and Ilen Rovers’ improvements, all eyes will be on Carbery Rangers and Castlehaven when the Premier Senior kicks off in April. The latter have been busy since exiting last year’s championship at the hands of Rangers by assembling a new management team for 2020.
James McCarthy is a terrific choice as manager and selector John Cleary needs no introduction considering his Éire Óg and Cork minor LGFA successes since donning the famous blue and white hooped jersey. An experienced backroom team should bolster a senior panel that underachieved last year.
That extra-time second round loss to Carbery Rangers following a thriller in Skibbereen proved a big disappointment and on the back of a surprise one-point loss to Fermoy. As usual, Mark Collins, Brian Hurley and Michael Hurley provided the bulk of the Haven’s scores, but another gear must be found to have any chance of returning to the business end of the championship.
McCarthy and Cleary possess the requisite knowledge and hunger to return the Haven’ to the Cork Premier Senior’s top table but it will be far from easy considering rivals Carbery Rangers’ presence.
Micheal O’Sullivan’s side remain one of the county’s most consistent and dogged clubs. John Hayes rolled back the years with 1-9 of Carbery Rangers’ total in defeating Castlehaven. Yet, there is enough experience and emerging talent for Rangers to challenge once again next year and improve on their previous third-round exit.
A tricky group against three local rivals should test Carbery Rangers to the limit. It may sound like a cliché but there will be no easy games in Group 2. Expect plenty of drama, talking points and controversy when the ‘group of death’ rolls around.