No substitute for quality as Cork U20 hurlers found the extra gears

Leinster champions Dublin or Kilkenny await in the All-Ireland final
No substitute for quality as Cork U20 hurlers found the extra gears

Ciarán Joyce of Cork in action against Devon Ryan of Tipperary during the Bord Gáis Energy Munster U20 hurling final. Picture: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

THINGS will be less hectic from a GAA point of view as the new year dawns, but nevertheless, January will still bring its share of important action.

Usually, we would be preparing for the provincial pre-season competitions – or be in the midst of them, as the 2020 season actually began in late December 2019 – with the All-Ireland club championships on the horizon as well as the second- and third-level championships.

Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic means that things are a lot different this time. The schools and colleges games will be played at some stage, though the inter-county pre-season tournaments have been dispensed with. While county teams will be allowed to play challenge matches, essentially they will have to wait until the commencement of the national leagues at the end of February for the first signs of competitive action.

Similarly, there are no provincial or All-Ireland club championships, but hopefully the coming weeks will see the 2020 season finally draw to a close as the minor and U20 champions are crowned.

While Cork’s interest in both minor codes was ended before Christmas, and the U20 football side’s campaign had concluded before the lockdown was imposed in March – the decision to bring that championship forward was not necessarily the right one but it did at least save the GAA a headache.

It is the other U20 team, the hurling side, which carries the remaining Cork hopes into the new year and there would have to be some optimism in the way they saw off Tipperary to claim the Munster title and advance to the All-Ireland final, on the night before Christmas Eve.

Conor O'Callaghan clears the sliotar. Picture: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Conor O'Callaghan clears the sliotar. Picture: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Having started slowly, conceding the first two points, Cork hit the front with scores on the trot and never trailed thereafter, playing some lovely hurling that demonstrated a high level of cohesion based on good coaching.

Even so, they faced a stiff challenge from Tipp, who came from two points down to level at 0-13 each just after the second-half water-break. Cork could have wilted – certainly, a few of the team would have had bad memories of Munster and All-Ireland final losses to Tipp last year while there was the loss to the Premier County in the last U21 All-Ireland decider too, in 2018 – but instead they pushed on and a quick burst of 1-3 put them into a lead that was able to withstand a late Tipp goal.

What was especially notable was the influence of players from the bench for Cork. It’s not overly harsh to say that this is something that has been lacking at senior level in the recent past and so it was heartening to see the depth of options available to Pat Ryan and his selectors. Even so, having options and using them properly are two different things, but the management deserve credit for their decisions here, too.

The goal involved three subs making their mark as a low delivery from the left wing by Seán Twomey was won by Brian O’Sullivan and, though his shot was saved by Tipp goalkeeper Aaron Browne, Jack Cahalane was on hand to fire home the loose ball.

Aside from that trio, Shane O’Regan and Pádraig Power – both of whom featured in last year’s All-Ireland final – were called from the bench, further proof of the strength in depth and competition for places that Cork have.

It should ensure that the focus remains sharp ahead of the decider, though that has been pushed back from the original January 10 slot due to current restrictions. 

Opposing Cork in the final will be Dublin or Galway, who clash in the postponed Leinster final, and there is a nice kind of symmetry to the fact that these are three remaining teams.

Three years ago, with the minor grade about to change from U18 to U17, a special U17 competition was held for those would have been minor in 2018 under the old rules and Cork, managed by John Considine, came out on top in that – defeating Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final and then Dublin in the final.

Given that the formlines have carried well to a large extent in the interim, Cork fans will hope that the same outcome will bear true this time around, too.

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