LAST weekend had everyone raving about the standard of hurling at Croke Park.
It lit up the hurling year which was badly needed.
I think that it all started the Tuesday before though when we had a wonderful U20 Munster final between Tipperary and Cork. In my time watching the game there have been many classic games in Munster between Tipp and Cork, at all levels of hurling, and this year matched everything that has gone before.
It was a lovely summer evening with nearly 10,000 people in Thurles and both teams served up what you would call a classic. Play swinging from end to end, the lead changing hands several times, players playing with absolute freedom.
The crowd participation was absolutely magnificent with no one taking their eye off the ball, or the game, because if you blinked you could miss something, and here I have to give credit to Thomas Walsh of Waterford.
He allowed the game to flow, sometimes even when there were frees for both sides, he still let it go and players really got on with it, no complaining to the referee which was good to see, common sense prevailing by everyone.
A few things happened which cost Cork the game and the most important one being the loss of Shane O’Regan, who had to go off injured at a crucial time.
You couldn’t fault Cork in this game, but you must say, fair play to Tipperary they stole it with a late goal. Everyone coming away that evening wanted to stand around talking about the great game they had just witnessed. A sure sign that it was top class when people want to stand and talk.
The question on people’s lips was ‘will we see these two again in the All-Ireland final?’
Everyone was hoping we would. We will know more after this weekend when Cork take on Kilkenny.
This is a huge game for Cork, make no mistake about it. Not just for this group but for Cork as a hurling county. Huge in every sense of the word.
Cork have suffered a lot at the hands of Kilkenny at every level over the last number of years, none more so than the beating of the senior team a few weeks ago.
Cork supporters need to get that belief back they can beat the Cats and deprive them of getting into a third All-Ireland final, they are already there with their seniors and minors.
Denis Ring will have to pick his players up after that Munster final defeat and have them highly motivated for what is going to be a fierce challenge.
He has to change that losing sequence that he has had with underage teams. I believe that this Cork team have a great chance of reaching the All-Ireland final, but it will not be easy.
Cork have some outstanding hurlers at this level.
Ger Collins is a very capable goalkeeper. Eoin Roche is a tough and tight corner-back and he will need to be here if he is up against Eoin Cody, one of the danger men for Kilkenny.
I also think James Keating will need to be on top of his game, as Sean Ryan is a dangerous forward and well able to make and take a score.
I believe the Cork half-back line will really need to drive this team on and lay down the markers from the word go. They have two outstanding hurlers in that line.
Ger Millerick, not alone is he a good hurler, he is a very good man-marker. I believe he should be picking up the Kilkenny danger man Adrian Mullen.
The powerhouse of this Cork defence, and was my Man of the Match in the Munster final is Sean O’Leary Hayes. I have been watching this guy since minor and there is no doubt in my mind that he will be a good senior hurler for a number of years to come.
He shows great leadership qualities and great hurling ability and he will be tested here as Niall Brassil is no slouch. I expect a massive contest between these two, but O’Leary Hayes is well capable of winning this duel and be the launching pad for Cork.
Midfield should be a great battle too and Kilkenny are strong in this area with the powerful Evan Shefflin and Eoin O’Shea by his side. Tommy O’Connell wears eight and Daire Connery should be his midfield partner. Connery was a brilliant midfielder at minor level, and in my opinion that is where he should be in this team.
He’s a brilliant striker of the ball both from long distance frees and play, and add in the sidelines here as well. Another potential for senior for Cork but they are up against serious opposition at the weekend.
Cork forward Sean Twomey has been outstanding for this team and has been one of their best players, well able to win his own ball and well able to take his score. I expect he should have some battle with the very forceful David Blanchfield who was Man of the Match in the Leinster final.
Twomey has the strength and power to come out on top here.
I think Cork have two very dangerous forwards inside in Brian Turnbull, who is a very tricky customer, and will be very hard to handle for Mickey Butler. The man alongside him, if he is recovered from injury, Shane O’Regan, is Cork’s most dangerous forward, great to get on the ball, on the ground or in the air, well able to score, and very brave.
He’s another guy I can see stepping up to senior in the future, but he is on a full-back here, Conor Flynn, who knows what defending is all about. Very athletic and very rangy, but he will have his hands full with O’Regan.
Cork need to win this game and get another crack at Tipperary who I think will win their semi-final with Wexford, and try to make up for that Munster final defeat.
I believe they will win it. They have the players capable of winning it, but they will have to stand up and fight like dogs for every ball, for every minute of this game.
If they do that they will be in the All-Ireland final and that is a prize worth fighting for, for Cork, for themselves and for Denis Ring.