THEY say the darkest hour comes before the dawn, and the Cork hurlers will be hoping that saying rings through as they look to move on from two disappointing championship campaigns in a row.
The campaigns of 2017 and 2018 promised so much, but despite winning two Munster titles in impressive fashion they ended up falling short at the semi-final stage. By the time we see championship fare again in 2021 the most recent of those provincial triumphs will be all of three years ago.
These reboots can happen quickly though. Cork only have to look across the border to Waterford to see this.
Waterford had failed to win a game in the championship since the All-Ireland semi-final of 2017, against Cork annoyingly, and hadn't recorded a victory in Munster since beating Clare in 2016. The rot had truly set in, so new manager Liam Cahill had a huge task in terms of rebuilding their confidence levels and turning their fortunes around.
Part of this process was moving on regulars who had been great servants, like Noel Connors and Maurice Shanahan, perhaps as they did not fit what he was looking to build within the set-up.
One of the most surprising aspects of this newly reinvigorated Déise that so few of the great All-Ireland U21 winning side of 2016 were part of the team that reached the All-Ireland final. They defeated Galway by 5-15 to 0-14 that evening in Thurles in 2016 and at that moment the hurling world appeared to be at their feet.
The assumption was that any resurgence from Waterford in the coming decade would be backboned by this magnificent side. However, four years later only three members of that great Waterford All-Ireland U21 winning team of 2016 started against Limerick, with these being Conor Prunty, Austin Gleeson and Stephen Bennett.
From that team, Conor Gleeson, Darragh Lyons and Patrick Curran came off the bench against Limerick, while Mikey Kearney, Mark O’Brien and Peter Hogan were unused subs on the day, but when you consider that the Waterford U21 team of 2016 was up there with the Cork side of 1997-'98, the Tipperary outfit of 2010, and the Clare unit of 2013, as one of the greatest sides to ever play the grade, you would have expected more of those stars to be mainstays of this Waterford team by now.
A few of that swashbuckling 2016 side did not fit the template either. In many ways ‘talent’ was almost an afterthought in terms of identifying players that could implement the Cahill game-plan. Work-rate, application and athletic ability were more desirable attributes to the former Tipperary U20 boss.
In his first year in charge of the Déise county, Cahill turned to players who were not household names in order to make Waterford competitive again, and these players repaid his trust in spades.
The likes of Ian Kenny, Shane McNulty, Calum Lyons, Jack Fagan, Kieran Bennett, Jack Prendergast and Neil Montgomerie certainly were not well known in the country in mid-October, but each of them were integral to the tough, tenacious and hard running side that saw off Cork, Clare and Kilkenny on their way to the All-Ireland. These players bought into what Cahill wanted them to do, with the result being that Waterford turned two years, where their form fell off a cliff, around in almost no time at all.
This is the lesson that Cork hurling needs to learn – that star names are not necessarily the players who are going to drive Cork on.
It may mean the player who wins more rucks gets picked over the guy with the better touch, or the lad who can break tackles gets the nod over the better ball striker. They may be the kind of choices that have to be made in Cork going forward.
Eight new names were recently added to the Cork hurling panel in recent weeks – Niall Cashman, Daniel Meaney, Tadhg Deasy, Alan Connolly, Sean Twomey, Daire O’Leary, Ger Millerick and Shane Barrett – and more from this year’s U20 side can be expected to get chances before too long as well.
If Cork can tap these players for the kind of effort levels that Liam Cahill got out of the above-named Waterford players then there may finally be a dawn on the horizon for Cork hurling.