Cork hurling powering forward on underage development squad work

Rebels landed an U20 All-Ireland at the weekend, a pay off from improved structures from U14 upwards
Cork hurling powering forward on underage development squad work

Cork's Padraig Power in action against Dublin's Andrew Dunphy. The Blarney forward buried the crucial second goal at Nowlan Park. Picture: INPHO/Ken Sutton

WHEN Micheál Ó Domhnaill interviewed Wayne Sherlock after Saturday’s All-Ireland U20 final on TG4, one of the first questions Ó Domhnaill put to Sherlock focussed on the huge emotional release from ending such a long wait.

“When Conor O’Callaghan raised the cup,” said Ó Domhnaill. “It was if the pain of all those years seemed to be fading away.” 

Sherlock answered the question with the same level-headedness and composure which he showed as a brilliant player with Blackrock and Cork. 

“Look, we try not to dwell too much on the past,” he said.  “These players, it isn’t their fault.” 

That outlook has been a consistent pattern throughout this squad’s journey, where the group have always been far more concerned about creating their own history, than looking back on Cork’s modern history, and being held hostage by it.

Shane Barrett said as much in his post-match interview when receiving the man-of-the-match award after the Munster final last December. 

“We’re here to make our own history,” said Barrett that night.  “We’ve no baggage. We’re a completely different new team.” 

Cork selector Wayne Sherlock speaks to TG4 prior to the final on Saturday. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Cork selector Wayne Sherlock speaks to TG4 prior to the final on Saturday. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

They are, which is a tribute to Pat Ryan and his management, and how they have moulded and shaped the players, and their thought process. Ryan has always had massive faith and conviction in this squad, which he eloquently outlined in an interview in the Irish Examiner before the game.

“These have been the most successful players we’ve had in the last 10 or 15 years,” said Ryan. “They’ve won at development squad level, they’ve been in Munster finals and won them. 

"They don’t see themselves as having baggage, they see themselves as being the best players in the country and rightly so, because they are.” 

Cork certainly proved that on Saturday. 

It was a brilliant performance, but it was also a confirmation of the huge talent in the group, as well as showcasing the massive big-game experience many of these players have accumulated along their underage journey.

Conor O'Callaghan of Cork lifts the U20 All-Ireland hurling trophy. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Conor O'Callaghan of Cork lifts the U20 All-Ireland hurling trophy. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Losing an All-Ireland minor final in 2017 and an U20 decider two years later was heart-breaking. Eight of this squad were involved in that 2019 All-Ireland U20 final loss to Tipperary but the harrowing nature of that defeat helped steel them.

Having three players which had already played senior championship added to that experience, but the strength, depth and quality of the squad was first underlined in the Munster semi-final against Limerick back in December when the bench cut loose in extra-time.

Some players which had contributed hugely up to Saturday didn’t make the starting team but that was another silent statement of how much developmental work has been done in Cork over the decade.

Much of Cork’s struggles over the past two decades were rooted in a policy of apathy towards development squads. The old guard in the county board didn’t believe in them until they were made to see sense.

The way in which Cork’s original development squads were handled was also completely overhauled. 

The 2017 minors were the first group to be exposed to the new approach from when they entered the system as 14-year-olds. The 2020 U20 squad were the next in line and it has clearly made a huge difference.

“In the past, we couldn’t deny that the talent in Cork wasn’t at the same level as in other counties,” says Cork coaching officer Ronan Dwane. “There were legitimate reasons for that too – we took our eye off the ball, the schools weren’t going as well, we didn’t have development squads operating at the same level as other counties.

“But once we got organised properly and the right work was being done, the fruits are evident now. 

"We certainly have the talent. We can’t say anymore that we don’t have the players at underage level. We do. 

"And any team we put out now is at least the equal of every other county in the country.” 

COMPETITIVE

Cork’s consistency at this level has been excellent over the last three years but falling at the last hurdle in those two All-Ireland finals skewed the perception of how well those sides had done, and, more importantly, how many players went on to join the senior squad; 15 Cork players which played in both of those underage finals have since gone on the play senior championship hurling.

In contrast, nine players from those Tipperary U21 and U20 teams have played senior championship but most of those have been fleeting experiences, and Jake Morris is the only player who has so far established himself in the senior championship.

Barry Hogan, goalkeeper on the U21 team in 2018, made his senior championship debut against Clare this year but Tipp are still going with their tried and trusted senior players and they certainly haven’t leaned on those young Tipp players like Cork have.

After Saturday’s game, Ryan rightly paid tribute to the work done by his predecessor as manager in the grade, Denis Ring. 

“One thing I’d like to say is that a lot of this work goes down to Denis Ring and his group,” said Ryan. “They did fantastic work the last couple of years, and some of it was maligned.” 

Dwane echoes those sentiments. 

“Pat is a brilliant manager,” says Dwane. “He and his management team have done a superb job, but Denis Ring and his backroom team deserve huge credit too. 

"The county owes them a debt of gratitude. A lot of people have contributed to this success.” 

They certainly have. The developmental work is paying off now. 

And it should too in the future.

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