LAST Tuesday evening’s Munster U20 final defeat to Tipperary was another hard loss for Cork hurling to take, particularly in the context that so many of the Cork players had suffered similar late heartbreak against Tipperary in last year’s All-Ireland U21 final.
The biggest difference this time around though, is that these same players have the chance now for atonement – possibly against Tipperary again – that so many of last year’s U21s didn’t get.
This game is always about looking forward, about building for the future, and the U20 grade provides the bedrock of that perspective for the senior grade.
In that sense, last week’s defeat was almost irrelevant, not just because the players have a second chance, but because a number of these players have shown that they can step up for Cork in the future.
Failing to get over the line again – similar to the 2017 All-Ireland minor final, along with last year’s U21 final – could be described as a worrying trend for Cork hurling teams. But there is no comparison to be made with this U20 side and the senior team.
The U20 team showed the heart, spirit, courage and conviction that too many of the senior players didn’t show against Kilkenny, and also against Tipperary and Clare in the 2019 championship.
The belief all along was that Cork – on their day – could win an All-Ireland senior title. But the firm reality now is that Cork are unlikely to win an All-Ireland with this current panel of players.
The same cannot be said for most of the current U20 crop. With seven of the starting team underage again next year, a sizeable chunk of the squad are good enough to win an All-Ireland U20 title this year, and possibly next year too. Most importantly of all though, there are plenty of those players good enough to be Cork seniors in the coming seasons.
Jake Morris may have got the match-winning goal for Tipperary last week but Ger Millerick was outstanding on Morris throughout. Sean O’Leary-Hayes may need more time but he has huge potential. With their abrasive and physical approach, Sean Twomey and Shane O’Regan are the kind of forwards that the Cork seniors have been crying out for. Daire Connery and Brian Turnbull are excellent young players.
They might not be ready for senior championship hurling in 2020 but that process must still begin in earnest next season. The problem in Cork is not talent, or a lack of it, anymore – it’s making the right appointments.
It’s likely that there will be a change of management for Cork in 2020, so whoever gets the job needs to make some hard decisions and to build for the future with the players from last year’s U21 side, and this year’s U20 outfit.
Suggesting radical change may sound drastic for a team that should have been in an All-Ireland final last year. But they couldn’t get over the line when the line was right there. And they regressed as a group this year.
The house doesn’t exactly need to be completely torn down. Getting rid of a mass group of experienced players is always a risk, especially when so many of those pillars could still be important in setting the new blocks in place. Yet that still doesn’t deny the scale of the rebuilding job required.
If John Meyler doesn’t return in 2010, his replacement needs to be someone prepared to take a long-term developmental look at Cork hurling. The public never want to hear talk of rebuilding projects at the expense of success but Cork have to put the right blocks in place now if they are to have the sustained success in the future that the young talent suggests Cork can enjoy.
With any cultural, structural and significant personnel change, pain is inevitable for a period. The Dublin football machine looks unstoppable now but when the wheels were first put in motion by Pat Gilroy in 2009, the machine careered off the road at various stages.
Kerry annihilated them in the 2009 All-Ireland quarter-final. Meath pistol-whipped them in Leinster – Dublin’s last defeat in the province – when rifling five goals past Stephen Cluxton in the 2010 provincial semi-final. Dublin won an All-Ireland in 2011 but when standards dropped again in 2012, Gilroy moved on and Jim Gavin arrived and began taking the culture to a whole new level again.
That’s where Cork need to be aiming now. Cork needs a fresh start with a new voice, new blood and a totally different approach.
The 2020 league would be the ideal starting point to road-test a new batch of young players. A newly revamped format with two groups of six won’t place the top teams under the same pressure that the old Division 1A and Division 1B (especially those top teams seeking promotion) routinely put teams under.
In all honesty, Cork haven’t taken the league seriously – serious enough to try and win it – in four years. Since last reaching a final in 2015, Cork have been in three relegation finals in four seasons. The other year was a limp quarter-final defeat to Limerick in Páirc Uí Rinn in 2017. Cork may have won successive Munster titles in 2017 and 2018 but that team’s graph is declining now and it’s highly unlikely to spike and peak at winning an All-Ireland with the majority of the current group.
With the right attitude and work-rate, Cork may not be far away from an All-Ireland in the coming seasons. Yet whatever happens, the best way forward for Cork is through a new project rather than persisting with the current project that hasn’t delivered the biggest prize over the last few years.
And this weekend’s All-Ireland U20 semi-final gives many young Cork players another chance to audition for that project.