ANYONE learning a trade needs exposure to it, the chance pick up good habits and to make mistakes and right them.
It’s one of the most obvious facts and is no less true when it comes to sport. It’s not for nothing that Malcolm Gladwell outlined the ‘10,000 hours’ theory in Outliers, the belief that a prescribed level of focused practice is required to become an expert.
However, as we have said more than once, change in the GAA comes at a glacial pace and so it’s only in the past two years that we have regular championship games in inter-county minor hurling and that only because it’s mirroring the system at senior level.
While last year wasn’t successful for Cork in the fact that they failed to reach the Munster final – unlike the senior grade, third place in Munster doesn’t advance to the All-Ireland series – it did nevertheless give an indication of the learning curve.
Winners the first day against Clare, the conceded three goals and in their next outing, away to Tipperary, the defensive openness was punished. While they did adopt a more prudent approach against Limerick, it blunted their firepower, resulting in another loss, meaning they went to Thurles for the final game against Waterford more in hope than expectation.
Having taken on board the swift education of the previous games, Cork sparkled in that final outing, winning by 3-17 to 2-5 and, but for a late Limerick fightback against Clare, John Considine’s side would have reached the decider.
Instead, they lost out to Tipperary on scoring difference, +3 compared to Tipp’s +12, giving extra significance to the 4-15 to 1-14 loss to the Premier County in the second game.
This time round, Cork again opened with a win, finishing strongly to ease past Tipperary, and they carried that momentum into the away game against Limerick, leading by 1-4 to 0-2 inside the opening quarter-hour. However, the hosts came back strongly and they were five points to the good in the second half before Cork once again came up strongly in the closing stages, Darragh Flynn earning a draw with a late equaliser.
Prior to the start of the competition, it was felt that two of Cork, Limerick or Tipperary would form the pairing for the final, so a point on the road was valuable, though perhaps the only pity was the make-up of the fixture-list, meaning that, after the week off, Cork would again be out of action as they had their bye week.
Against that, Waterford were coming to Páirc Uí Chaoimh in a similar situation to their senior counterparts, already eliminated from the competition. Complacency is hard to avoid in such a situation, especially as Cork knew that defeat wouldn’t be fatal to their chances, and the sides retired level at half-time, Cork with 0-10 to Waterford’s 1-7.
Following the pattern of the other two games, Cork were improved in the second half and, though, they never fully escaped the Déise clutches, they did enough to secure the win.
Limerick’s three-point win over Clare on Sunday means that things are finely poised ahead of next week. Cork top the table on five points with Limerick and Clare both on four while Tipperary are on two points in fourth but could conceivably reach the final if they won and Cork triumphed, though there is a large scoring differential to overcome against Limerick and Clare.
That’s obviously of less importance to Cork, who will know that all they have to do is win and they will be in the final. Having had to deal with a sweeper system against Waterford, they are likely to be up against something similar in Ennis but should be better equipped to deal with it after Saturday evening’s exposure.
In a previous era, one early off-day would have ended a campaign before it began, denying a potentially talented group of players the chance to develop, and even when the back door was introduced it wasn’t fully equitable. Now, there is an even playing field and it benefits all stakeholders, ensuring that these teenagers are able to improve and learn as they go.
Make the final and there is another guaranteed game, with Croke Park just one step away. While the senior game will obviously take the bulk of the attention, the minor game is no minor matter.