EVEN if this one-off competition can’t be considered on a par with minor or U21, Cork hurling took a significant step on a sun-kissed but unseasonably cold April evening in Dungarvan.
For the first time in three years, a Rebel side are Munster champions, the victors in an U17 grade introduced to cover the official move of minor to that age group from next season. There’s an All-Ireland up for grabs too later in the summer, and while it will take an improved performance to push on towards that crown, John Considine’s charges were worthy winners here.
They had already defeated Limerick and Tipp and were hot favourites. Yet despite an early blitzkrieg – ahead 1-4 to 0-1 against the wind thanks to a neat Tommy O’Connell goal and some lovely long-range scores from Daire Connery – this was no stroll. Waterford were ahead by a point at the break, albeit thanks to a free that fortuitously dropped into the net.
Any notion of a mismatch was over with the home side 1-9 to 1-8 ahead and the natives vocally cheering them on, but these young Leesiders battened down the hatches. The middle-eight made use of the wind to pick off Waterford puck-outs and get a bit – even if it wasn’t enough – of a supply going to target-man Joe Stack (below), who was fouled for a free and a penalty, both pointed, set up a score for Daire Connery and a goal chance for Brian Roche that whizzed wide.
The Déise were threatening on occasion when running up the centre, necessitating a vital block from corner-back Ronan Sheehan, but the unforgiving breeze and Cork’s work-rate kept them to three second-half points.
Still, Cork had to grind it out until Owen McCarthy pounced on an error to slip home a goal to make it 2-12 to 1-10 in the 50th minute. At that juncture there didn’t look like a way back for Waterford because Cork were never going to cough up a goal chance.
McCarthy wrapped it up heading into injury time, clinically finishing after a scorching run from centre-forward by Declan Hanlon, and in general Cork made better use of their possession. Waterford’s wides tally of 10 to four told the tale of a winning team with a more cohesive attacking unit.
Credit should go to Cork’s full-back line of Eoin Roche, Ciarán Nyhan and Sheehan, who saw off their direct markers, while keeper Luke Donovan was rock solid in the second half under the dropping ball. Aaron Walsh-Barry hoovered a pile of breaks across the half-back line, and was strong in the air too. Captain Conor O’Callaghan, from Dromtarriffe, became more prominent in the latter stages.
The standout Rebel was Na Piarsaigh’s Connery. He is very highly-rated, was a vital cog in their Premier 1 Minor County-winning group last year, and showed all his potential on this occasion. His haul of 0-4 from play was telling, while his movement and striking across midfield was notable too.
Midleton’s Tommy O’Connell had a whale of a first half on the wing, smashing in the opening goal, getting fouled for Colin O’Brien three scored frees and setting up points for Connery and Hanlon. He never got motoring after the break, but perhaps his high-tempo style was better suited against the wind when less deliveries were sent long?
Quite rightly, Cork took the Munster U17 title seriously, putting forward their strongest team including the likes of Connery, Hanlon and Brian Roche, who could start as well next Wednesday night when the minors host Waterford at Páirc Uí Rinn.
Other counties may not have treated this U17 competition as a priority, but Cork aren’t in a position to turn down silverware. Last summer Cork development squads won four of the seven competitions from U14 to U17 level, having grabbed a clean sweep from U14 to U17 in 2015.
That’s 12 trophies from 15 including this U17 series, which surely hints at the talent to fuel Cork at the minor and U21 grades from here on.
Credit to the players, manager John Considine and his selectors Sean Crowley and Donal Burke for getting this job done. It’s a boost for the minors, who are likely to face Tipp in Thurles in a knockout semi-final if they defeat Waterford next week.
Progress to a first Munster minor final since 2008 and we can really say a Rebel rising is on the cards.