IT might not have been the most dramatic of Munster finals, but it was a damn sweet one for Cork.
After nine years of disappointment at the minor grade, these Rebels ruthlessly dismissed an outclassed Clare side. Cork were hot favourites beforehand, but given it was this young team’s third game in 11 days, to deliver in such style was a stunning achievement.
Manager Denis Ring and coach John Dwyer had these lads purring. A 17-point winning margin. Wow!
Evan Sheehan collected the Man of the Match award for his haul of 2-2 – the two first-half goals clinically stitched when the slightest of gaps opened up behind the Banner sweeper – but it was a complete team display. From Ger Collins, Seán O’Leary-Hayes and James Keating manning the heart of the defence, through the majestic Daire Connery and tenacious Brian Roche at midfield, up to the two-man inside line of Brian Turnbull and Liam O’Shea, Cork oozed class.
Turnbull was doubled-teamed after his exploits to date but still chipped in with 0-2 from play and the forward line shared the scoring burden. Towering Glen man Robert Downey struck for 1-2 and second-half sub Barry Murphy buzzed around while picking off 1-1.
Clare were no mugs. Their half-back line gave them a platform through pulling down aerial possession. Yet they made little or no inroads against the Rebel defence, where O’Leary-Hayes was doing an impression of The Rock in his pomp. Keating is a hardy buck too, while Conor O’Callaghan, Eoin Roche, Aaron Walsh Barry and Ger Millerick were ultra-reliable too, forcing turnovers and defending from the front at all times.
Connery was immense at midfield in the first half, though perhaps Clare erred by opting for a sweeper which allowed the 17-year-old stickman far too much room. The Na Piarsaigh tyro’s striking was immaculate, including two monster frees inside his own 65.
Downey pulled down some crucial puck-outs and also pilfered the fourth goal from the edge of the square, but all the green flags were well taken. O’Shea assisted two of them, setting up Barry Murphy with a stunning delivery across the square, and it was terrific to see Sheehan had nothing but goal on his mind any time he snapped up the sliotar.
Sheehan’s always been a forward who placed more store in a goal than any amount of points, and given he’d been below his best in the previous outings he’ll get a bounce from this going into the All-Ireland semi. You can imagine the marquee young men in this team will relish hurling at Croker.
The most significant achievement of course was seeing off Tipp at Páirc Uí Rinn last Monday. Cork had crashed and burned in four Munster semi-finals in a row and failed to negotiate that hurdle since 2008. On occasion it was due to bad luck, sometimes because the quality simply wasn’t available. Either way it had become a talking point and therefore an issue.
It highlighted the demise of Cork as a hurling superpower – I’d lost track of how often I’d cited the stat in these pages – but the cycle has been broken, which made the Munster final result less important.
Getting past the provincial semi offers young hurlers the experience of a big final, a guaranteed extra game, and a trip to Jones Road. That’s priceless.
Of course Cork hurlers have progressed to the highest level without success at minor, from Conor Lehane and Chris Joyce to the new wave of Mark Coleman, Darragh Fitzgibbon and Shane Kingston. Some, unlike those five, don’t even shine on an individual basis underage, such as Seamus Harnedy, Luke Meade and Mark Ellis.
It’s a reflection of the talent on Leeside, the massive effort going in at club level and development squads with the assistance of the county’s GDAs and GDO Kevin O’Callaghan, and the nous of Kieran Kingston’s senior set-up that Cork have bounced back despite underage losses.
Now though the hope is Cork can reassert their status as hurling bluebloods at minor and U21. Trophies certainly help in that regard!
The U17s, which included key players in this minor team Connery, the Roche twins, O’Callaghan and Walsh Barry, swept past Limerick, Tipp and Waterford for a Munster title and take on Galway in an All-Ireland semi in two weeks. The management team of John Considine, Sean Crowley and Donal Burke deserve their share of the credit for that.
Next up is an U21 semi away to the Déise on Thursday. U21 boss John Meyler provides a senior link as a selector and on paper Cork should defeat Waterford. These are changed times indeed. It’s grand to say the primary aim of underage is to provide players for down the line. Certainly in the case of U14 up to U16 leading into minor that’s valid.
Yet why not drive hard for silverware? Only a handful of hurlers will get to perform at senior, for many their only shot at glory in a Cork geansaí is at minor and U21.
You’d imagine the likes of Turnbull, Connery and O’Leary-Hayes look like bankers to become elite hurlers, but this is a vintage crop that could supply up to six or seven to a senior panel.
It’ll be interesting to see what the impact is of dropping minor from U18 to U17 next season. For now though, there’s still a minor All-Ireland to be captured. Bring on the semi-final on August 13.