THE CORK U17s did this the hard way.
After grinding out a 1-19 to 1-17 victory over Galway in Semple Stadium, their reward is an All-Ireland final against Dublin in Croke Park on Sunday week. From the ‘Field of Legends’ – as Tipp constantly remind us over the PA in Thurles, and they’re right – to a Field of Dreams. These are indeed heady times for Cork hurling.
Seven days after that U17 decider, six of the minor contingent who beat Clare will be back up the road to face the Dubs again. The Roche twins, Daire Connery, Aaron Walsh Barry, Conor O’Callaghan and Declan Hanlon are pursing a double. So too corner-back Ronan Sheehan, an unused sub with the minors so far but outstanding here.
Galway didn’t use all of the U17s who'll be involved with their minors against Kilkenny, but that wasn’t Cork’s problem. The county isn’t in a position to be picky about trophies.
While Cork’s more experienced hurlers were expected to shine, it was the lesser lights that dazzled. Colin O’Brien was their spearhead in attack, top-scoring with a haul that included two soaring sidelines and 1-1 from play.
Subs Sean Twomey, who caught four dropping balls at midfield, and Joe Stack, on the edge of the square, were difference-makers. Sheehan excelled in the last line of defence, particularly when his side were under savage pressure in the opening period.defence, particularly when his side were under savage pressure in the opening period.
Another replacement Shane Barrett made a late cameo and twisted clear for the match-sealing free after a sublime touch. Cormac O’Brien, just 16, came into the game big time in the last quarter, alongside minor starters Conor O’Callaghan and Aaron Walsh Barry.
Full-back Ciarán Nyhan spent much of the second half closer to the half-back line but made a couple of vital turnovers. Keeper Eoin Davis’ thunderous puck-outs pegged Galway back and in the closing stages he caught a sliotar dropping dangerously close to goal.
Cork dominated the latter stages yet it was still level pegging with five minutes to go after a Niall Coen goal against the run of play and there was only a point in it after 62 minutes. Connery, who turned 17 yesterday, never hit the heights and missed a penalty after Declan Hanlon was fouled, but still chipped in with a free and two 65s.
That Cork dug over the victory was hugely satisfying, especially when the U21s were beaten by Limerick. There was an understandably small crowd but a lively atmosphere in the fourth quarter all the same.
While the going was tough for the marquee young guns, Brian Roche clipped over two sweet late points and set up two goals chances. His brother Eoin was as tidy as ever and pulled off a goal-saving first-half hook.
For much of that 30 minutes Cork were chasing shadows against the wind, Galway’s aerial prowess and the leadership of centre-back Conor Lee and sharpshooter Conor Molloy giving them a platform. Cork were 0-9 to 0-7 down coming up to the break and in real bother; the Tribe finished the half with eight wides to Cork’s one.
Then came a crucial moment and a stunning goal. Owen McCarthy snapped up a loose ball and fed Brian Roche, who unselfishly dished it to O’Brien before a lethal finish on the run from 20 metres. The sliotar dipped into the top corner out of the keeper’s reach.
In that sluggish first half, Blake Murphy – the U17 football captain – curled over two majestic points, while Tommy O’Connell looked dangerous in bursts.
At the same time there wasn’t a lot of conviction or composure to Cork’s play. Manager John Considine and selectors Donal Burke and Seán Crowley got their switches right though, and with a greater presence around the middle third and a better supply in with the wind, they slowly gained control.
It still took a colossal push to get over the line, but semi-finals are all about winning. Hopefully the expanse of Croker and a short 10-day gap – the Munster series ended three months ago – will suit this promising group.
Scorers for Cork: C O’Brien 1-10 (0-7 f, 0-2 sl), D Connery 0-3 (0-2 65, 0-1 f), T O’Connell, B Murphy, B Roche 0-2 each.
Galway: C Molloy 0-9 (0-4 f, 0-1 65), N Coen 1-1, Enda Egan (0-1 sl), J Fleming 0-2 each, D O’Brien, M Kennedy, P Creaven 0-1 each.
CORK: E Davis S (St Catherine’s); E Roche (Bride Rovers), C Nyhan, (Courcey Rovers), R Sheehan (Mallow); C O’Brien (Newtown), C O’Callaghan (Dromtariffe), A Walsh Barry (Carrigtwohill, c); D Connery (Na Piarsaigh), L Ryan (Inniscarra); T O’Connell (Midleton), C O’Brien (Liscarroll, Churchtown Gaels), B Roche (Bride Rovers); O McCarthy (Inniscarra), B Murphy Na (Piarsaigh), D Hanlon (Blarney).
Subs: S Twomey (Courcey Rovers) for Ryan (23), J Stack (Castlemartyr), for McCarthy (39), S Barrett (Blarney) for Murphy (54).
GALWAY: D Fahy; E O’Donnell, S Thomas, TJ Brennan; D Shaughnessy, C Lee, D Jordan; D O’Brien, P Creaven; E Egan, C Molloy, N Earner; M Kennedy, J Egan, N Coen.
Subs: J Fleming for J Egan (half-time), C Killeen for Egan (51), M Gill for O’Brien (57), A Clarke for Gill (58-60, blood).
Referee: A Devine (Westmeath).