A YEAR ago we could have confidently stated that Cork were the one side that worried Limerick.
That was going on the provincial meetings between the two counties in the previous two seasons, with the Munster round-robin matches of 2018 and 2019 ending in a draw and a Cork win, respectively.
Limerick won the 2018 All-Ireland semi-final after extra time, but Limerick were well aware that they got out of jail that day.
Since their last meeting at the Gaelic Grounds in 2019, in which Cork won by seven points, the two teams have gone in very different directions. Limerick have gone on to become the dominant force in the country, over the past twelve months in particular, while the progress that Cork made in 2017 and 2018 has by now almost completely eroded away.
So, when they do eventually meet in the championship that nagging doubt will remain in the back of Limerick’s mind that Cork can trouble them, but in reality it is up to Cork to prove that this is the case.
Limerick’s young guns of a couple seasons ago have now blossomed into the main men on the hurling scene. They now have the medals and the titles to back up the hype.
If Cork are to match Limerick then Cork’s younger players will have to do the bulk of the heavy lifting.
That might sound like a big ask, but that is the size of the task awaiting Cork in a few months. It will be very much a case of sink or swim.
Of course, there will be five league ties to bed in new players between now and then, including one outing against Limerick themselves. Can the likes of Jamie O’Leary, Niall Cashman, Daniel Meaney and Tadhg Deasy do enough in those games to put themselves in the frame for championship combat?
That too is a tall order.
If Cork are to have a good 2021 then they are going to have to get a lot more out of the likes of Mark Coleman, Darragh Fitzgibbon and Shane Kingston. They were the fresh blood that inspired Cork’s mini breakthrough in 2017, but the last two years have seen a stalling of the effectiveness of Coleman and Fitzgibbon for Cork, in particular. Both players would probably benefit from being shifted up a line, with Coleman given a midfield role and Fitzgibbon placed on the 40.
The bottom line is that they have to become Cork’s leaders now. Seamus Harnedy and Patrick Horgan will still be there, of course, but it will be the younger brigade that will have to stand toe to toe with Limerick if Cork are to prevail.
This need for leaders is of particular relevance in defence, as quite simply, Cork have to become much meaner in terms of minding their own house. The hope will be that the return to the coaching ticket of Donal O’Grady will help in this regard.
And while the draw was as tough as it gets for the Cork hurlers at least they know that they will have a backdoor in the event that they come up short against the reigning All-Ireland champions. The Cork footballers, like last year, have no such safety net.
The weeks and months have been long for the Cork footballers since their Munster final defeat at the hands of Tipperary last November.
After beating Kerry in such dramatic fashion in the semi-final it was such a missed opportunity for Ronan McCarthy’s young squad. A Munster title would have been hugely beneficial to the side’s development, and a crack at Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final would certainly have added to their experience, whatever the result.
This year’s Munster Championship draw has seen Cork placed in the opposite side of the draw to Tipperary and Kerry, meaning they will be expected to reach the final, at a minimum. Limerick, who went so close to beating Tipp last year, will have something to say about that, should they see off Waterford, but anything less than a final appearance will be deemed a complete failure on Leeside.
The loss of the injured Sean Powter in last year’s Munster final proved fatal for Cork, so it will be of vital importance that Ronan McCarthy devises a way of playing that is not overly reliant on the injury-prone Douglas man to penetrate well organised defences.
Cork played with fear in that game against Tipp, and if they are to harbour ambitions of competing with the likes of Dublin, Kerry and Mayo this year then the shackles must be removed and the players encouraged to play a more natural, kicking game.
Cork won the U20 All-Ireland in 2019 playing such a style and you would imagine that if the Rebels are to kick on then more of that All-Ireland winning team must make the breakthrough to the senior side. Sean Meehan and Maurice Shanley were instrumental in the win over the Kingdom last year, while Colm O’Callaghan also featured. Paul Ring and Cathail O’Mahony saw action in the Munster final loss, and you would expect the Mitchelstown forward to become an integral part of the Rebel attack going forward.
Blake Murphy looks tailor-made for senior duty, as does Douglas’ Brian Hartnett, while the star man from the minor victory in 2019, Conor Corbett, will be coming into the senior reckoning sooner rather than later.
If Cork are to make a breakthrough in either code this year then fresh blood will be a major contributing factor.