IN the middle of January, the Cork hurling squad travelled to Carton House in Kildare for a training weekend, departing Cork early in the morning.
The limited daylight in late winter was a factor in the early start, as they wanted to get as much done as possible.
Going on a training camp so early in the season was a first but it was also keeping in tandem Cork’s early season approach under John Meyler – the squad have trained most days so far in January.
Not everyone has been involved in all those sessions because Cork have 15 Fitzgibbon Cup players in their squad but Cork have still been following the general trend of most top counties this winter – getting the hard slog done early, and when they can, before the games start coming hard and fast.
Managing workload and depositing a certain quota of work in the bank has become a key challenge with a new system.
The unknown is inflated by such a busy early-season calendar, which requires serious, and careful planning of the amount of loading players are exposed to.
Otherwise, players won’t be able to sustain the intensity required later in the year.
With the teams who reach the league final on March 24th having to play eight games in nine weeks, and with the new Round Robin championship starting in May, where teams will play four games in five weeks, one of the fears is that the hurling league could lose much of its relevance.
Some teams won’t be as concerned with the competition as in recent years but Cork, especially under Meyler, are unlikely to adopt that approach.
Meyler’s mindset will want Cork to win every game but, as a new manager craving momentum, he will be desperate to get off to a good start on Saturday night against Kilkenny.
He will also demand a performance, and a result, with the fixture being Cork’s first home match in the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
Meyler will also want to break the stranglehold Kilkenny have had on Cork over the last decade.
Kilkenny’s current line-up does not possess the same fear-factor that their teams so routinely had under Brian Cody but that still didn’t stop Kilkenny riding roughshod over Cork in the past, under similar circumstances; in the opening round of the 2015 league, Kilkenny arrived in Páirc Uí Rinn with a totally inexperienced squad and turned over a Cork team full of first-team players.
Kilkenny’s aura has dimmed since then but their fight and spirit certainly hasn’t – Cody was sent to the stand last week during the Walsh Cup final, which Kilkenny lost to Wexford after a free-taking competition.
Kilkenny also come into this game looking more battle-hardened than Cork, who may be slightly undercooked, especially with so many of their front-line players having played so few games to date this year.
Unlike last year, when Cork won the Munster hurling league, the competition this year was about experimentation and blooding new players.
With Stephen McDonnell having stepped away, Cork have been looking for a corner-back but the centre-back position also looks up for review. With deeper panels required for the summer though, Cork need to come out of this league campaign with at least one new midfielder, and another new forward, primed for championship action in May.
Some of the players who got their chance in the Munster league will be given their opportunity during the league; Sean O’Donoghue, Darren Browne, Jack O’Connor, Tim O’Mahony.
Meyler played O’Mahony corner-forward last year for the U-21s, while he has been playing full-forward for Mary I in the Fitzgibbon Cup, but O’Mahony lined out at centre-back during the Munster senior league.
With Mark Ellis currently injured, Eoin Cadogan, who returned from the footballers, will also surely get a chance in the number six position at some stage during the spring. Browne, who is on duty on Saturday with Kanturk, and who should be club tied for another few weeks, may also be auditioned as the defensive pivot at some stage of the campaign.
Jack O’Connor only came on for the U21s in last year's Munster final but he was only 19 at the time, and his outstanding form for Sarsfields in last year’s county championship showcased his immense potential.
Other young players are on the panel for Saturday night’s game but, despite those new players coming on stream, and the blue-chip quartet of Darragh Fitzgibbon, Shane Kingston, Mark Coleman and Luke Meade being a year older, Cork may still struggle to rediscover the heights of 2017.
For a start, the element of surprise is gone.
The spark of confidence, freshness and momentum that quartet ignited last year also cannot be underestimated.
Cork have some exceptionally talented players further down the production line but they can’t really touch them in 2018, primarily because many are still in secondary school.
A guy like Sean O’Leary-Hayes may come onto the panel after his Leaving Certificate, like Kingston and Coleman did in 2016, and get game-time late on, just as Kingston and Colman did against Dublin and Wexford that summer.
Whatever may happen, quality young players like O’Leary-Hayes need more time.
In any case, the priority of all those young players should be to win an All-Ireland U21 title this year, which Cork are well capable of achieving.
For now though, Cork’s only focus is on Kilkenny.
Meyler always wants to win every game but he will want it more than ever on Saturday night.
Especially in front of the locals, and under the bright new lights.