WHEN Cork hurlers won the All-Ireland U21 hurling title in 1997 and 1998, it was followed by three All-Ireland senior victories from '99 to 2005.
The teams that won those three senior titles were built around many of the successful players who came to the fore under the fine management team of Bertie Óg Murphy. Much has happened since those halcyon days and for the most part, in all grades, Cork’s hurling plate has been empty.
But that all changed last Saturday night in Nowlan Park when the U20 team regained the title after a gap of 23 years. Another Sarsfields stalwart, Pat Ryan had successfully followed in the footsteps of Bertie Óg and that is something that the Riverstown club should be immensely proud of.
Success in the grades below senior is never a guarantee going forward. Tipperary won the previous two U20/U21 titles but not too many of those players have graduated, not yet anyway with Jake Morris the only one to be a regular on Liam Sheedy’s team.
Quite rightly, there was great joy at Cork’s fully deserved victory last Saturday night and the portents are good going forward. But, at the same time, expectation levels cannot be raised too high because there is a fairly considerable gap to be bridged between U20 and senior intercounty hurling.
Down through the years, quite a few players who impacted significantly in the U21 grade were unable to take the leap forward.
Cork had an excellent bunch of players on duty here who handled the occasion very well and did most things right. They got off to a very fine start, put a couple of very well-executed points on the board, and then secured a smashing goal after fine approach work.
That early dominance set the tone and as well as Dublin tried to make a right battle of the proceedings, Cork had the ability to keep them at arm's length.
There was an awful lot riding on this game with Dublin having played competitively far more recently. Given that scenario, there might have been a bit of apprehension on the part of some Cork supporters and that some ring rust might have been a factor.
As we all know now, that was not the case and everybody connected with this Cork squad deserves huge credit for that. The word had been that the players were looking very good on the training ground and in a couple of practise games, but that doesn't always follow into the competitive arena.
For any team to be successful in any sporting code, squad depth is essential and that has been proved conclusively by the Limerick senior team.
Given the players who were putting up their hand, it could not have been that easy to nail down the Cork starting 15. When the time arrived to introduce subs, they were not found wanting with Brian Hayes and Jack Cahalane delivering three fine points between.
Given that the margin between the sides at the end was just four points, those scores proved vital. Cork had 10 scorers in total and that represented a fine overall return.
It has been a barren time for Cork hurling in terms of landing the biggest prizes of all across the grades but a beginning on the recovery journey has begun.
A number of the team on Saturday night have already worn the senior shirt and the performance of Shane Barrett against Dublin alongside the contribution that he made when introduced as a sub against Limerick puts him in a very strong position to start in the qualifiers.
Brian Roche put in a huge shift around the middle of the field and few could argue with the decision to award him with the TG4 Man of the Match.
The work-rate of the entire team was very impressive and that is a tribute too to the work of the management, all of them good hurling men who have much more to offer Cork from here.
The county won’t have too much time to bask in the glory of the achievement given the close proximity of the Munster championship.
But one thing is set in solid concrete now, these players are All-Ireland medal holders and they have built the foundation for a better future for the game in the county.