THE BRIGHT young things of 2017 are now key pillars of the Cork hurling team.
While it doesn’t seem that long ago since Kieran Kingston refreshed the Rebel line-up by introducing Darragh Fitzgibbon, Shane Kingston, Mark Coleman, Luke Meade and Colm Spillane for the Munster championship, they’re all heading into their fifth championship as starters.
Kingston and Coleman were actually brought off the bench in the 2016 qualifier loss to Wexford. Fitzgibbon turned 24 recently, while Meade will be 25 in autumn. Spillane is 28 in July though a cruciate delayed the start of his senior career.
The league, which throws in against Waterford at Páirc Uí Chaoimh this Sunday, will see the Cork team shaped around this generation of hurlers, which includes Patrick Collins as the new first-choice cúl báire since Anthony Nash’s departure.
Along with Robbie O’Flynn, Deccie Dalton and Tim O’Mahony, who were part of the 2015 minor crop with Kingston, Fitzgibbon and Coleman, the core of this Cork team has evolved.
Yes, thirtysomethings Patrick Horgan, Seamus Harnedy, Bill Coooper and Eoin Cadogan remain on board, but the rookies of 2017 must assume leadership roles.
It’s partly down to the natural selection that sees inter-county players fall by the wayside, like Mark Ellis, for example, who moved on quietly last year after a run where injuries dogged him.
By the same token, Kieran Kingston and his selectors were pretty ruthless over the winter. Anthony Nash and Stephen McDonnell retired, with Christopher Joyce, Aidan Walsh and Conor Lehane cut loose.
Walsh told the Irish Examiner recently: “I was kind of hoping to get another year or two out of it but it wasn’t to be. It’s something I will have to get used to.
“I’ve been in a senior Cork set-up since 2009 and you kind of get into a bubble and a routine going up and down the road and knowing you can’t do this and you can’t do that, but as one door closes, another opens.
“The management felt they had to make calls and I hope it works out for them and I wish them all the best. I just want to have a really good year with Kanturk now.”
Walsh has his senior All-Ireland from the 2010 football triumph and a couple of All-Stars, while his hurling achievements are somewhat under-rated from those who hoped he’d be the answer to all Cork’s ball-winning problems. He was a powerhouse all through the 2014 Munster championship and had a stormer at wing-back in the 2015 qualifier defeat of Clare. In 2019 his foraging and work-rate from wing-forward was critical in beating Limerick at the Gaelic Grounds.
Like his Duhallow divisional comrade Ellis, Walsh’s body betrayed him at times, and dual demands didn’t help.
Cork’s U20 hurlers showed a lot of promise in capturing a Munster title before Covid curtailed the All-Ireland series, with centre-back Ciarán Joyce, deadly forward Shane Barrett, captain Conor O’Callaghan and rangy wing-back Daire O’Leary among the standouts. Dáire Connery already his senior bow for the Rebels against Waterford in the 2020 Munster semi-final and while it didn’t go according to plan, his pedigree is undeniable.
The biggest challenge for Kingston and his selectors is meshing the young guns with a squad now shorn of older and more physical players like Walsh, Ellis and Joyce. Particularly when Limerick’s powerhouse brand of hurling dominated the landscape in 2020.
At least Colm Spillane, Tim O’Mahony and Damien Cahalane bring size and a hard edge to the rearguard. And generally, Cork’s defensive issues have related to the lack of cover from the half-forwards as much as anything.
It’s why Donal O’Grady was persuaded to come in as a defensive and tactical specialist in the backroom.
The management will have to come up with a style that suits Cork’s fast, skillful hurlers before attempting to clone Limerick’s skyscraping approach.