ON the first week of January, Cork and UCC played out an entertaining match in the Canon O’Brien Cup at the Mardyke, with the county winning by the narrowest margin, 1-24 to 1-23.
It was a very experimental Cork side while 13 of the players UCC used were from Cork. It was only a pre-season competition but the huge volume of Cork players lining out for the college, combined with the high number of new players with the county team, underlined the huge amount of good hurlers Cork currently have to choose from.
That might sound like a nothing statement when a county as big as Cork should always have plenty of hurlers but the vast majority of Cork’s big names were not playing. Nine of last year’s Cork U-21 panel were on show that afternoon but a handful of that team's bigger names were not present.
When Cork played their opening Munster League game the previous weekend against Clare, eight players who featured didn’t line out in that Canon O’Brien match. In fact, 14 of the 24-man squad for that match in Ennis have yet to see championship action.
Although Cork ended up in a league relegation final last March, John Meyler said throughout the 2018 league campaign that management’s only priority during the spring was to find new players. Cork found a few but not enough; when they needed more bodies and options late on in the All-Ireland semi-final against Limerick, Cork didn’t seem to have them, or trust what they had on the bench. Daniel Kearney was carried off in normal time and patched back together to reappear in extra-time.
Meyler went expanding the net as quickly as possible afterwards. Stephen McDonnell, Aidan Walsh and Cormac Murphy rejoined the squad while a host of young players were added to the panel. “We need to strengthen the panel and we need to strengthen the team,” said Meyler in early December. “We have tried to do that and, please God, we will.”
With many of Cork's large volume of Fitzgibbon Cup players unlikely to feature in some of the league games, especially early in the season, Cork will probably try out more players in this campaign than any other side in Division 1A.
Cork have the players to experiment with but Meyler and his management will be particularly focusing on some players with certain positions in mind; centre-back, corner-back/full-back, and across the half-forward line.
Cork have some of their most talented players in the half-forward line but the return of Aidan Walsh and Cormac Murphy is surely with a view to increasing Cork’s ball-winning options in that area. Meyler selected both in those positions in that opening Munster league game against Clare. If Murphy or Walsh, or Declan Dalton, Tim O’Mahony, Robbie O’Flynn or Michael O’Halloran, could give Cork more aerial dominance in the half-forward line, it may allow Seamus Harnedy to move into the full-forward line.
Cork have brilliant forwards, especially now with the return of Alan Cadogan, but finding a better balance up front will be a priority after last season.
So will be increasing their defensive options. The modern game is as much about having pace and mobility as having any players who are specialist in one position. In that context, this will be an important league campaign for David Lowney, David Griffin and Eoghan Murphy.
Having a settled number six is still a priority. Tim O’Mahony was tried there for last year’s league but he may get more of a chance to establish himself as the defensive pivot this spring.
Whatever position management have in mind for O’Mahony, Cork will hope that he, along with Griffin, Lowney, O’Flynn and Eoghan Murphy will get to that next level by nailing down a starting jersey.
Despite many of those players trying to combine county and colleges hurling, they will still get sufficient game-time this spring when the chance allows for it.
The nature of this campaign fits perfectly with Meyler’s spring project because the league is effectively immaterial in 2019. Because every side has a free pass.
In November, Central Council decided to restructure the league from 2020, where there will now be two groups of six, but with an even mix, and with no promotion or relegation between Divisions 1A and 1B in 2019. With that safety net in place, a number of managements will not be overly bothered with the league.
Teams will want to find form. Performances, work-rate and application will always mean something but there will be nothing like the same pressure to secure results as in previous seasons.
Some teams will use the league as a dry-run for what’s coming over the summer but the impending new league format from 2020 acknowledges the reality of the new championship, where teams don’t need a manically competitive league prior to the dog-eat-dog championship.
The modern level of professionalism, along with the advanced strength and conditioning culture, dictates a different agenda now, both for managers and players. Managers often take their lead during the spring from the advice of S&C coaches but they will certainly have more of a licence now to increase their players' training loads in 2019, and in the future, than they had during last year’s league in preparing for the championship.
Now that everyone knows what the Round Robin championship entails, being right for the summer is the only focus for everyone. Back in December, Meyler said that the “2019 All-Ireland is going to be 10 times harder than 2018 because it will be more competitive”.
It’s always been about All-Irelands for Cork but the longing is more intense than ever with a 14-year stretch since Cork’s last senior success.
Last year proved that Cork are close to ending that famine but they still need a core group of peripheral, and established players, to find those extra few per cent if Cork are to win an All-Ireland.