AFTER the highs and lows of last summer, it’s back to the grind of league hurling this weekend.
On paper it’s a high-profile opening salvo to Cork’s season, away to Kilkenny, but the reality is we’re still in January and given the Munster round-robin format, the league doesn’t have the same appeal as it did in recent years. The league programme is as unforgiving as ever in the top flight though Cork have three home games which is an obvious plus.
All told it’s hard to predict how it will go. The Rebels could finish at the business end of the league or end up bottom.
At this stage of the team’s development, going for three in a row in the province and desperate to reach the All-Ireland final after the disappointments at Croker in 2016 and ‘17, whatever happens the only concern is how is impacts the championship. As ever, blooding a few rookies in the spring is a must.
John Meyler and his selectors Donal O’Mahony and Kieran ‘Fraggie’ Murphy did just that in their first campaign, with Seán O’Donoghue and Robbie O’Flynn coming through, and need to do the same now. The return to fitness of Alan Cadogan is like getting a new striker in soccer — and a quality one from La Liga as opposed to an unproven signing from Belgium — but it’s at the back they really need to strengthen.
Blaming the defence for Cork’s failure to get past the last two All-Ireland semi-finals is a cop-out, as the losses to Waterford and Limerick were far more complicated than that. Though it’s hard to look past the concession of seven goals either.
Tim O’Mahony and Robert Downey, on the basis of their appearances in the Munster Senior Hurling League either side of Christmas, will get plenty of game-time. Interestingly, both hurled underage with Cork in the forwards, Downey at wing-forward for the 2017 minors, while O’Mahony shone at full-forward at U21 only last summer, particularly when they blitzed Wexford.
In the case of Downey, who will be a key figure for the Cork U20s later in the year, the bulk of his hurling lately with Glen Rovers has been in defence.
He anchored their minor team from the back two years ago when they upset the odds in the Rebel Óg Premier 1 decider against Midleton.
O’Mahony has generally been up front for Newtown and gave an exhibition of catching at Páirc Uí Chaoimh when they lost a cracking quarter-final against the Magpies. Tall and rangy, he’s also extremely skillful.
You can see why Meyler wants him in the half-back line though, given his aerial prowess and vast potential. He was used in attack off the bench last summer and struggled a bit in the All-Ireland semi-final, but he could well have started at number six against Clare in the first round of the Munster championship if it wasn’t for an injury.
By the time the provincial series starts in May, Cork will need to have a reasonably settled rearguard, but now is definitely the time to experiment. O’Mahony and Downey should be given every chance to push for half-back slots, assuming O’Mahony won’t be then redeployed in attack.
Stephen O’Donnell is involved again after work commitments ruled him out in 2018, and will add to Cork’s depth as Eoin Cadogan did last year. David Griffin, David Lowney and Eoghan Murphy were U21 defensive standouts while Niall O’Leary has a couple of brilliant campaigns with Imokilly under his belt as well.
Further up the field, with Darragh Fitzgibbon tied up with Charleville and has a knee injury, cover is needed in midfield to operate alongside Bill Cooper. Mark Ellis has been used previously and Daniel Kearney would drop deeper seamlessly but Conor Cahalane is worth a shot too.
The Rebels have a plethora of forwards capable of hurling up a storm but the management should be conscious of not flogging their marquee men too hard this early in the season. Seamus Harnedy is out with an injury anyway but Conor Lehane and Patrick Horgan should sit out a few league matches too, while O’Flynn and Shane Kingston are currently on Fitzgibbon Cup duty with UCC.
It’s a good complaint, but Cork aren’t short on tasty forwards.
Still, it’ll be interesting to see if Deccie Dalton’s heft, aggression and free-taking earn him a berth on the championship panel.
He doesn’t have the raw pace associated with summer hurling but Cork have so many players who do that Dalton could feature to offer something different.
In contrast, Jack O’Connor is a top-of-the-ground flier, but also deserves every chance to prove himself.