A SKILLFUL, driven, gutsy effort from Cork’s minor hurlers last Monday night thrilled the Rebel faithful.
The stakes couldn’t have been higher – with a place in tomorrow’s provincial final against Clare up for grabs – but the new wave of Cork hurling talent rose to it. It really was a pulsating Munster semi-final win over Tipp at Páirc Uí Rinn, as the scoreline of 2-22 to 2-19 reflected.
Seán O’Leary-Hayes, Daire Connery, Brian Turnbull and Craig Hanifin were the inspirational figures but make no mistake this was a terrific team display. The margin of victory was three points after a breathless finale during which the Premier died with their boots on, but Cork had enough to push through. They deserved to, but as we’ve learned time and again recently in this grade, deserve has nothing to do with it. You need the steel to go with the silky touches and that was crucial with the win up for grabs.
In doing so Denis Ring’s gifted young squad will tomorrow bridge a nine-year gap to the last appearance in a Munster final. It will be the first time since 2006 that Cork’s seniors and minors shared the big stage.
Certainly this is a group of young guns with the ability, self-belief and team-work to deliver. The quality of their point-taking, low deliveries to Turnbull and Liam O’Shea in a two-man full-forward, and support play was a joy to watch last Monday night.
Their excellence in that regard is a testament to the coaching work of John Dwyer, alongside selectors John Mortell, Liam Martin, Fergus Ryan and Stephen Casey (strength and conditioning). There was always talent available, as the on-the-age hurlers won All-Ireland tournaments at U14, U15 and U16, but minor is a significant step up.
When Tipp trimmed the margin to just a point in injury time extra time was looming, but Conor O’Callaghan and the Roches twins, Eoin and Brian, ensured Cork cleared their lines. Livewire Turnbull – scorer of 0-4 from play and fouled for numerous frees which eventually saw his marker Jerome Cahill red-carded – arrowed over a critical score, and Connery’s late free franked the result before the final whistle.
The two first-half goals were brilliantly worked, towering wing-forward Hanifin and nimble O'Shea each scoring one and assisting the other.
Hanifin was out of sorts in the drawn encounter but chipped in with 1-4 here, while his Na Piarsaigh comrade Connery, still U17, was simply majestic in midfield, clipping over 0-3 from play.
Cork came from 0-4 to 0-1 behind early to lead 1-4 to 0-4, all the scores from the hurleys of northsiders Sheehan, Hanifin and Connery.
The management shrewdly rejigged the line-up from last week, with Diarmuid Linehan as an auxiliary wing-forward and Ger Millerick now at midfield to track Tipp ace Paddy Caddell, snapping up a pile of breaks. James Keating used his bulk tellingly at the edge of the square and Ger Collins went more direct with his puck-outs, targeting Hanifin and Robert Downey.
If we felt Cork hurling was back after Tipp and Waterford were seen off, then this confirmed it. Leesiders can now look forward to a Munster final double-header from 2pm tomorrow, while the U17s already landed provincial honours and the U21s face Waterford away in the semi-final next Thursday.
The official attendance was 8,142 but it felt like more as the crowd filtered in from well before the 7.30pm throw-in and eventually packed the covered stand.
They were treated to another gripper – on the back of last Thursday’s extra time epic in Thurles when Cork twice battled back from the brink – even if the Rebels were guilty of taking the foot off the gas in the last quarter when 11 points ahead.
In the end it didn’t matter and the buzz on the pitch afterwards was further confirmation that Cork are poised to regain their status as a hurling powerhouse.
Clare are not to be taken for granted tomorrow. Like Cork they brushed Waterford aside in the early round, and they were underdogs in the semi against Limerick before grinding out a 0-19 to 0-17 extra-time victory in poor conditions.
The half-back line of Diarmuid Ryan, Cian Minogue and Aidan McCarthy was their launchpad, with free-taker Tiernan Agnew and Gary Cooney sharing 0-14 against the Shannonsiders. Midfielder Keith White shot 0-6 from play against the Déise, and even if he only clipped over a score last week, could take minding.
Tactically Ring and his selectors got all their big calls right in the replay, even if they might have been better off bringing in fresh legs a bit earlier. They'll look to by-pass the Banner half-backs where possible, even if Hanifin and Downey have the height to compete in the air and Evan Sheehan has the pace to cause havoc.
These young Rebels are certainly good enough to capture the crown tomorrow, provided their feet are still on the ground after taking flight last Monday.