The big interview: Diarmuid O'Sullivan on underage development in Rebel county, going from selector to supporter, and the Cork-Limerick rivalry

The big interview: Diarmuid O'Sullivan on underage development in Rebel county, going from selector to supporter, and the Cork-Limerick rivalry

Diarmuid O’Sullivan, will host the Bord Gáis Energy Rewards Tour at Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Friday ahead of Cork-Limerick. Picture: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

IF circumstances were different, Diarmuid O'Sullivan would be prowling the sidelines this Saturday evening.

The Rock was a major component in Kieran Kingston's management team in 2016-'17, but after stepping away from his role as selector and figurehead for the supporters, he'll be sitting in the stands in the Páirc. 

"It's nice to be a supporter and makes you appreciate how big this thing is, how much the supporters crave success," he explained ahead of the Bord Gáis Energy Rewards Tour on Friday at the revamped stadium. "It's wonderful to have a facility like this. There's a good buzz around the city. There's a good trade going on and that's important too. There was a good energy from the crowd against Clare and it made the occasion really. Cork needed that to start off."

Turning 40 this summer, the Cloyne native is still pulling on his club colours, and recently came on in a junior football victory, having missed the early phase of the season through injury. On the coaching front he's now working with the Ballygiblin team competing in the Avondhu championship. 

"It gives me an opportunity to breathe, take stock and re-access. It gives the chance to try out different things with a new set of players. 

"It's a challenge too and if it can help me develop in a coaching role going forward then great. It's an avenue I'll pursue going forward and you have to learn. I'd a great two years with Kieran, the two Pats (Ryan and Harnett) and John Meyler, last year. It's like when you're playing, you've to keep moving forward."

Coaching and player development is a real passion of O'Sullivan's. Three years ago he was over a Cork U16 development squad that won an All-Ireland tournament and included the likes of Evan Sheehan, Ger Collins and Sean O'Leary Hayes. He feels, as reflected in the the exploits of the Rebel U17 and minor squads last summer, the standard of underage hurling on Leeside is on the rise.

"I've seen games from U11 right through to minor, underage development squads, and there's a good breed of player coming through. Most are well coached. Every club seems to have coaching officers who are of a high standard and they're improving the technical abilities of young lads compared to when we were 10 or 11. It's how to pick the ball correctly, how to strike off your left and right. I don't think we did that until about 14.

"They're coached how to hook and block and they're advanced so that's a credit to people involved in clubs teaching the fundamentals and the simple side of the game you have to get right.

"I was at an U11 game recently where you see players getting on the ball and putting their head up, seeing if there are options and putting it through. Before if you were a strong U11 you just burst through and hit the ball as far as you can. It's wonderful to see it now."

St Finbarr's David Dwane sets up an attack as Bride Rovers' Cillian Barry closes in, during the Evening Echo sponsored Féile na nGeal hurling final recently. Picture: David Keane.
St Finbarr's David Dwane sets up an attack as Bride Rovers' Cillian Barry closes in, during the Evening Echo sponsored Féile na nGeal hurling final recently. Picture: David Keane.

On the football front, Douglas' Féile winning crop caught his eye recently.

"I was at the U14 Féile football a few weeks ago and I was watching Douglas and their best player, a very good soccer player too by all accounts, was a real team player. He got the ball, did the simple things, passed it and moved, and was always aware of bringing the others into the game. You could see why he could progress into being a top-level soccer player if he doesn't stick with GAA."

Of course skill on the GAA fields must be matched by an iron will. Is there a danger, with the new Go Games non-competitive approach from U12 down, that young hurlers aren't as hardy as they once were?

"There are very competitive games at all levels, tough and intense, and you have to have that to fully develop. And it's not all about inter-county either. We have our club scene and we want that to be going well because when Cork were at their best we had that."

For all that, O'Sullivan concedes the resources of Cork's full-time coaching officers, the GDAs, are stretched.

"I still think there are opportunities for more with the schools. It's down to coaching hours and resources. We need more coaching officers in Cork, 30 or 40 probably, and that's only for hurling, let alone football. You could with up to 40 of each and we've only seven or eight. We're missing a trick there."

While the new round robin Munster championship format is only in its infancy, the Rock has faith in the system, if only because it delivers more matches for the players and supporters. The best advert for hurling is high-tempo clashes at the height of summer.

"Players were looking for more games of high quality and you're guaranteed four of those in this format. Obviously we'll have to wait and see over the three years of the trial if it works and how players and management deal with the run of matches.

"There a lot of lean months there from October where there aren't too many opportunities to promote our games. When the opportunity arises to keep our players on show in the summer months we have to make the most of that."

The four-time All-Star full-back believes the overhauled provincial structure is perfect for Cork, who have a stream of young guns looking for opportunities. Already Meyler has blooded three rookies in the ties against Clare and Tipp. 

"Take Seán O'Donoghue and Robbie O'Flynn, they've been around the set-up last year, so they've had a grounding so they know what's required. Tim O'Mahony has been there as well. It's positive for Cork to have fresh faces coming through."

Mark Coleman holds off Patrick Maher. Picture: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Mark Coleman holds off Patrick Maher. Picture: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

Even if Cork have enjoyed a positive start to their Munster championship campaign against Clare and Tipp, they'll need to be at full tilt to get the better of Limerick.

"Paul Kinnerk is a good coach and they've really, really good players. They have improved since last season. Their awareness and physicality is up a notch from U21 and they're becoming a dangerous machine who carry a serious threat." 

The Rock feels John Kiely has shown excellent leadership as Limerick manager this term. They gained promotion from Division 1B without utilising the Na Piarsaigh contingent who reached an All-Ireland final and those players haven't been automatically restored to the line-up.

That reflects their strength in depth in Limerick on the back of two U21 All-Irelands since 2015.

"From an outside fellas were expecting John to bring the Na Piarsaigh lads straight back in but he's a shrewd guy. He knows what he wants, had a unified group, playing a good brand of hurling and he still has options. He might have an idea of his starting 15 but to progress in this round robin you need a lot more than that and I reckon he's got that."

While Clare didn't travel in huge numbers two weeks ago, O'Sullivan expects the green-clad faithful to be out in force.

"Limerick supporters are a very passionate group. We've always seen that through their good days and bad days and they'll create an atmosphere in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. They've had a week to recharge and they'll fully expect to front up, similar to how they did in the league quarter-final last year. They brought a huge intensity and a big support to that game."

Of course O'Sullivan's most famous moment against Limerick came in the Páirc in 2001, when he landed an incredible point from his own full-back line. It's a score that's been endlessly replayed by RTÉ and on YouTube.

"Fellas forget we lost that game! Barry Foley put over a sideline from 21 yards out to win the game and that was the game-defining score ultimately, a more technical score than just dropping the shoulder and striking the ball for the same of getting rid of it!"

Cork were missing Seán Óg Ó hAilpín that day while Brian Corcoran wasn't fully fit.

Diarmuid O'Sullivan with Ciarán Carey.
Diarmuid O'Sullivan with Ciarán Carey.

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