Given the way the inter-county season schedule had to be compacted, the Allianz Hurling League was seen as more important than ever in terms of building momentum for the championship.
For instance, while Clare lost their Division 1 Group B opener to Antrim, they finished with three straight wins and carried that form into Thurles last Sunday, defeating Waterford. In such a landscape, there might be concern for Cork’s prospects – having beaten Waterford and Westmeath and drawn away to Tipperary in their first three games, they finished with defeats against All-Ireland champions Limerick and Galway.
They face the Shannonsiders in Semple Stadium on Saturday (7pm), but manager Kieran Kingston doesn’t feel that the final two league results have overshadowed the rest and made it a ‘bad’ league.
“I wouldn’t agree with that,” he says.
“I would have said before the league that I thought it was good for us in terms of building a panel, giving young guys an opportunity, and building a bit of momentum for ourselves. I would have said that it worked out well for us in that regard.
“Okay, we lost the last two games, having been five points up in the last one, which was the one that really disappointed us the most. With eight minutes to go, we were winning the game and topping the group and then we lost our shape and we ended up fifth in the group.
“Outside of that eight or ten minutes, I thought the league was very good for us. I would have said that it has given us good momentum and we learned a huge amount from it. You’ll learn more, actually, from that ten minutes and the Limerick game than the ones that we won earlier in the league.”
Certainly, Kingston feels that the team are in better shape than going into the 2020 championship. After a long Covid-enforced lay-off, Cork’s preparations were hampered by the county championships running on into the start of October, leaving them cold ahead of the meeting with Waterford, who benefited from a better lead-in.
“The last two years have been difficult for everyone, not just us,” Kingston says.
“You think that, the way campaigns have been devised and the way they’ve been run – which is all outside our control – that it probably suited the more settled and more experienced teams a little bit more.
“From our perspective, where you’re trying to build a team, build a panel – as you know, we’ve a significant amount of young lads – we would have liked to have had more games and a Munster league campaign and a Fitzgibbon Cup campaign, of course we would, but it is what it is.
“We really had no preparation going into the 2020 campaign. We finished the league on March 1, we were locked up four days later and we get back together on October 13 and we were playing on October 31.
“If you were trying to do anything with the panel in 2020, they were with their clubs so it was impossible to do anything. The advent of Zoom and all that has changed things a little bit and over this winter we were able to use it a lot for analysis – that wasn’t possible last year because players were with their clubs.
“There’s no doubt about it, preparations have gone a lot better, we were able to do an awful lot over the winter off-line and there was a lot of physical training done. The lads came back in a really good place, we’re back now nine weeks and the last time we had 18 days, so there is a difference.”
Cork used 34 players during the league, with Colm Spillane on the panel but ruled out through injury. Bar attacker Brian Turnbull, who has departed the squad, there has been no pruning for the championship.
“We started out with our panel before the league and the only player not on the panel anymore is Brian Turnbull,” Kingston says.
“Everybody else is still on the panel, we haven’t added anybody to the panel and Brian is the only player gone back to his club.”