Allianz Hurling League Division 1 Group A
Limerick v Cork
LIT Gaelic Grounds, 7.15pm
After an encouraging opening three league games, Cork hurling manager Kieran Kingston knows they will face their toughest test yet as they travel to take on Munster, league and All-Ireland champions Limerick tomorrow night.
Home wins over Waterford and Westmeath and a draw away to Tipperary leave Cork top of Group A in Division 1. While Limerick have lost their last two outings, against Galway and Waterford, Kingston expects a tough assignment.
“Any time you play Limerick, in any game, even more so in the Gaelic Grounds, you know it’s going to be full-on and as tough a game as you’ll get,” he says.
“Then you add in the fact that these guys have won two of the last three All-Irelands and were unlucky not to have three out of three, they’ve won the last two leagues and Munster championships, so you’re talking about the best team in the country by a mile.
“They’ve been able to do that and achieve that success while doing a certain amount of rotation as well, particularly during the league campaign.
“We’re up against the best on Saturday night, everybody knows that, raging favourites for the All-Ireland, and every time you play them it’s going to be a tough game. Saturday night will be no different – irrespective of the fact the teams are meeting in the championship, it’s a massive challenge for us going up there to play them and we know that.”
Cork will be without Séamus Harnedy, Colm Spillane, Bill Cooper and Eoin Cadogan but they welcome Shane Kingston, Robbie O’Flynn and Declan Dalton back into contention. Kingston has targeted panel development as a key objective from this league and he’s pleased that that has been coupled with positive results.
“Certainly, at the start of the league, we would have taken the position we find ourselves in, no question about that,” he says.
“At the same time, we’re realistic enough to know that it is the league and, no different to us, teams are trying out a lot of different players and systems. Some teams will have managed their training and loading going into the league different to others, especially when you look at Waterford, who played in an All-Ireland final, we probably started a bit before them in terms of individual training. That gap can be bridged quickly.
“We’re happy where we are in terms of the first three games, but it’s only the league and it’s only the first three games. We’re still very realistic as to where we are in terms of building our panel and building a bit of momentum.”
Saturday’s game is a month out from a championship meeting between the counties, but Kingston doesn’t think that will be a factor.
“From our perspective, we’re going to continue doing what we have done,” he says, “which is trying to have as much of a settled team as we can, but also to give fellas an opportunity for game-time and do a little bit of rotation. Then, obviously, you have injuries and niggles.
“Our approach to Saturday is going to be exactly the same as the other league games from that perspective. Irrespective of what happens on Saturday, I don’t think it’ll have any bearing on the championship. Once the league is over, it’s a new game on again.”
Ultimately, the key is to aim for consistency, an area in which Limerick have excelled.
“If you look at the successful teams over the last number of years in both codes,” Kingston says, “take the Dublin footballers, Limerick hurlers, they’ve had 21, 22 players that they can use at any time and it’s seamless in terms of interchangeability.
“They’ve used them extremely intelligently and they’ve set the bar in that regard and we’re all trying to get to that. I would have said before the start of the league that our ambition was to blood some young lads, try to get a bit of momentum if we could but, as importantly, try to get a squad together, to have 26 players available to give you something on the day of a championship game and perform at the level required.
“That’s the reason for the rotation and giving lads game-time because you’re limited in the amount of time you have with these lads, especially the younger players, who haven’t had a Munster league or a Fitzgibbon Cup.
“So you have the five league games and then, suddenly, it’s less than three weeks to championship. It’s difficult to blood them in and there’s a massive gap between club hurling in Cork and inter-county championship and a massive gap between U20 and senior.
“It’s just to try to bridge that gap as much as we can in terms of the physical and mental side of it, which we tried to do over the winter, and also now the actual, practical hurling side of it. But you have to try not to over-expose lads either, to manage their exposure, which is very, very important.”