It’s somewhat fitting that Cork’s 2021 campaign begins against Waterford, given that two different segments of the 2020 season also commenced against the Déise.
Given that so much has happened since, it’s easy to forget that ‘last year’ actually began in 2019 – a Co-op SuperStores Munster HL clash against Kerry in Mallow on December 20.
Nine days later, Kieran Kingston’s side went to Dungarvan and beat Waterford to secure a place in the final against Limerick on January 11. Though a lot would happen between then and the All-Ireland final on December 13, the broad strokes were the same – Limerick beat Cork by 1-32 to 0-20 points and their prodigious point-scoring ability, among other teams, ensured they won every single game they played in the season.
For Cork, the Allianz League began at the end of January with a trip to Walsh Park in Waterford and though there was the boost of early goals from Conor Lehane and Shane Kingston, the hosts came back to win.
Cork scored 11 goals in their five games, but still finished in fourth place and, when the championship belatedly began for them on Halloween, a lack of preparation time meant that the earlier trends couldn’t be reversed.
Waterford won by four points in a Munster semi-final in Thurles – a late Patrick Horgan goal gave the scoreline a closer look than was truly accurate – and though Cork responded by beating Dublin in the All-Ireland qualifiers, they fell to Tipperary. After such a wait, their championship season was condensed into 15 days.
Liam Cahill’s Waterford made the most of their win over Cork – the county’s first in the Munster championship since 2016 – giving Limerick a good test in the Munster final and then beating Clare and Kilkenny in the All-Ireland series to reach the final.
The Déise will look to build on that good showing, though they will be without long-term injury absentees Pauric Mahony and Tadhg de Búrca while goalkeeper Stephen O’Keeffe and Darragh Fives have stepped away from the panel.
Finding a new number 1 will be one of Cahill’s main missions, with Billy Nolan and Shaun O’Brien set to be given opportunities in the league. Replacing de Búrca will be just as big a task, though.
They are boosted by the return of Shane Bennett to the panel while DJ Foran, Séamus Keating, Michael Kiely and Thomas Douglas are among the additions on Suirside.
Cork are in a bit of flux, with Anthony Nash, Christopher Joyce, Conor Lehane and Aidan Walsh having departed. Patrick Collins is set to take over as the first-choice goalkeeper and there has been an injection of younger players, some from the U20 panel of last year, who are still waiting for a date for their All-Ireland final. There are some injury doubts around Colm Spillane, Eoin Cadogan and Bill Cooper.
Selector Diarmuid O’Sullivan is pleased to have them on board, but would welcome more clarity with the U20 decider against Dublin or Galway.
“There are a few new faces in at the moment,” he says.
“Simon Kennefick has come in with us, Daniel Meaney, Tadhg Deasy, Seán Twomey is back in, Shane Barrett, James O’Flynn, Daire O’Leary. We’re really happy with them and we have a development squad too but unfortunately our hands are tied with that at the moment, we don’t have access as it’s not senior inter-county.
“Having had a number of conversations with [U20 manager] Pat Ryan, there’s increasing frustration within their group trying to find out exactly where that competition is going.
As well as working those players in, Cork will be seeking to find a team that can compete in the championship. Mark Coleman impressed as a central player last year and one would expect him to become even more pivotal, while a lasting midfield partnership will also be a key objective as well as the usual hope that Patrick Horgan’s scoring burden can be eased.
The key thing is that the action is back.
“We need to be thankful of the opportunity to go and play these games,” O’Sullivan says.
“We need to respect all of the boundaries, because inter-county players and management are looked at in a high regard and we need to be seen to be doing the right thing. We’re the lucky ones, so we have to appreciate that.”