IT was a massive win for Cork hurling. A brilliant performance. The Cork crowd lingered on the field after for almost an hour.
It was a massively important victory in Munster in 2017, possibly Cork hurling’s biggest win at any level for years. And no, it wasn’t last Sunday’s Munster final.
At the outset of this season, the first two weeks in July were deemed the most important few days for Cork hurling in 2017 – the (expected) Munster minor semi-final against Tipperary, and the Munster U21 semi-final against Waterford.
Nobody envisaged the seniors becoming Munster champions in the intervening period but that still didn’t dilute how crucial those two underage games were, especially the minor’s semi-final replay win against Tipp in Páirc Uí Rinn last Monday night week. The atmosphere was electric. It was almost akin to the seniors playing a home qualifier.
The intensity, on the pitch and in the stands, was rarely seen at an underage match anywhere in recent years. When was the last time over 8,000 turned up for a provincial minor semi-final?
The Cork hurling public was already on a high but, with Cork’s dire underage record over the last 10 years, the hurling public were almost craving a landmark result to mark and end to those barren underage years. And especially with a team that had been effectively unbeaten since they were U14, and which carried so much hope for the county.were almost craving a landmark result to mark and end to those barren underage years. And especially with a team that had been effectively unbeaten since they were U14, and which carried so much hope for the county.
There wasn’t the same crowd, or razzmatazz, or explosion of emotion as there was last Sunday but, in a different kind of way, there was every bit as much emotion amongst genuine Cork hurling people from that minor semi-final result. It was undiluted passion to get a big underage win.
When Cork did, all the shackles came off. The pressure was released. Cork were in a different class to Clare in last Sunday’s minor final but they expressed themselves in a way that talented Cork underage hurling teams almost haven’t felt able to do in the last few years.
Cork should have beaten Limerick in the 2015 minor semi-final but didn’t. Cork’s minors were six points up against Tipperary last year and couldn’t win the game. Cork finally got it done last Monday week and now that the dam has burst, Cork have the potential to wash away all before them. At every level.
It’s not unrealistic to suggest that Cork could win every underage All-Ireland title from U15 to U21 before this summer is finished.
The U15s are an exceptional group. The U16s have a solid squad. The U17s are already in an All-Ireland semi-final.
Along with Kilkenny, the minors are favourites for the All-Ireland. Limerick are fancied to win the Munster and All-Ireland U21 titles. Kilkenny have a serious side too but, with the experience of their senior players, Cork may not be far behind either of them.
Either way, Cork will have a bountiful supply of talent to pick from in the coming years.
From the minor team alone, there are any amount of players who more than likely will play senior hurling for Cork, and in the near future; Sean O’Leary-Hayes, Brian Turnbull, Daire Connery, James Keating.
Goalkeeper Ger Collins has his brother Patrick ahead of him as senior sub keeper but there’s every chance that the two brothers will be battling for the number one jersey whenever Anthony Nash departs.
Evan Sheehan has massive potential. So has Liam O’Shea. Robert Downey has developed at a staggering rate. A wing-back for most of his underage career, Downey was devastating at full-forward last Sunday.
He wasn’t on the ball much but whenever he was, Downey scored or was fouled for a free. He is a huge man and, when he physically develops more, he will be a handful for any inter-county full-back.
Ger Millerick has been another revelation. His improvement in six months has been staggering. If he keeps developing, he could turn into a senior prospect.
Eoin and Brian Roche are under 17. Conor O’Callaghan, who was also excellent last Sunday, is another player with massive potential.
O’Callaghan is probably the best example of how well the Development Squads model is working. He is from a small club, Dromtarriffe, who won the Junior B county title last year.
He can’t play adult hurling because he is under 17. He isn’t playing Dr Harty Cup hurling. A player like O’Callaghan would have been lost in the past but he was picked up by the Development squads and is a Cork minor at 17.
A glance at the match programme further highlights how well the system is working now. Eighteen clubs were represented on the minor panel. When Cork hurling was strong in the past, some of those small clubs wouldn’t have even registered on the inter-county radar, especially when Cork was dominated by the big-three city clubs – Glen Rovers, St Finbarr's, and Blackrock.
Of the 26 minor players listed last Sunday, Downey was the only one from the big three.
Cork always had the numbers to be doing better than they were but the increasing potential has really been evident at Colleges level in recent seasons.
Two years ago, when there were 18 schools in the Harty Cup, eight were from Cork. There are 16 schools in next year’s Harty and Cork have the highest representation with five.
Three of those five – Middleton CBS, St Colman’s and Christian Brothers College – will be very strong.
Cork have finally got it right. For years, the county was in denial. They thought because they were Cork that they didn’t have to do what most other counties were doing. They refused to change and were left behind.
Eventually, Cork had to face reality. After conducting a review of how they ran their development squads, the recommendations of which were adopted in 2013 and immediately acted upon, the tide began to turn.
And now that it has, that tide has never been stronger. The dam may have finally burst.