FINALLY, we have lift-off.
After almost five months since the last game of any significance, the inter-county hurling season gets off the ground.
The games in this weekend’s opening round of fixtures, while very welcome, are also a sort of a trip into the unknown.
The teams will have only have had a few weeks of collective training under their belt, team bosses have had to rely on a few A v B challenge games to cast their eye over the new players that have been introduced into their squads and there is no recent formbook of any sort, no pre-season games or anything like that.
Management teams will have to be careful too in their game to game management given that there is only a very short break between the end of the league and the commencement of the all-important provincial championship campaign.
County managers won’t be going all out in their league endeavours, starting teams will change from week to week, but at the same time, they will want to have gathered some sort of momentum going into the championship.
Players will have to play in front of empty stands and terraces again, but at this stage, the vast majority of them are well used to that at this stage.
The country’s best team last season by a good distance, Limerick, get the ball rolling tomorrow evening against Tipperary and will be hoping to continue their recent domination over the Premier County.
Last season the sides opened things up again, Tipp ahead by 10 points at half-time but ending up in the losers’ dressing- room.
That set the tone for what transpired when the sides met again in the championship, Limerick, once more, emphatic victors in the Munster semi-final. RTÉ have coverage of that game and it will be well worth tuning into.
Here, on home soil, however, the visit of Waterford to Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Sunday is our main concern, again, a repeat of the counties’ opening league game last season when Waterford came out on top in Walsh Park.
And what happened afterwards when the sides squared up again in the Munster semi-final? Waterford triumphed again.
In both of Limerick’s victories over Tipp, and Waterford against Cork, the early bragging rights were important and as events unfolded, decisive.
Waterford went on to have a splendid championship, defeating Kilkenny in an epic All-Ireland semi-final before coming up short against Limerick while Cork’s season fizzled out with a hugely disappointing loss to Tipperary.
So, from a Cork viewpoint, the message before a ball is hit is very simple, must do a whole lot better this time.
Nobody will be looking for an all-out assault on the league, but the five games that they will play must provide optimism for the big championship opener with Limerick.
A number of players have been removed from the panel, others have called things themselves.
Some new, young, and exciting talent has been introduced by Kieran Kingston and integrating them into the championship plan will be his priority during the league.
At the time of writing, no team line-up was available, but it’s par for the course now for all counties not to release their teams until as late as possible. God be with the days when we had a Cork team on a Tuesday night!
A lot of the questions that have gone unanswered for a good while now will crop up again; trying to adequately fill the central positions on the team from full-back to full-forward and trying to have those positions best nailed down before taking on John Kiely’s Limerick in the Munster opener.
There has been too much chopping and changing in too many positions for too long, without a permanent solution to most of them.
Matching the physicality exhibited by Limerick last season has to be much better too, more defensive aggression is certainly desired.
There is a solid core to the side that is built around Robert Downey, Mark Coleman, Darragh Fitzgibbon, Seamus Harnedy, Tim O’Mahony, Patrick Horgan, and Shane Kingston, but on the days that really count, not nearly enough of the starting 15 are answering the big questions.
A fully fit Alan Cadogan would be a big plus and this will be an important campaign for Deccie Dalton and a few more.
Of the five games that Cork will play in this league, all are important from the viewpoint of integrating properly the new players in the squad and gaining proper momentum going forward.
We have to take into consideration the lack of match practise and the lack of collective training going into the opening game against Waterford.
Of course, it is the same for all counties. However, we saw last season that a win over your rivals can be very important if you were to meet up with them further down the line in the championship.
If things were to go badly wrong in one competition it could erode confidence very much going into the next one.
So, from that perspective, Cork need a positive return from the five league games.
There is no need for raging bonfires but, at the same time, a fire of significance must be lit.
A win over a fine and fairly well settled Waterford side would be a good starting point.
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