WITH one underage All-Ireland hurling drought having ended in Cork with the U20 side’s victory last Saturday, the focus now turns to the annual quest to bridge the gap to the last success at minor level.
Clare provide the opposition in Semple Stadium in Thurles this evening (7.30pm) as the Rebels seek to end a wait that stretches back to the 2001 side captained by future Ireland rugby international Tomás O’Leary.
Leading the Cork charge is manager Noel Furlong of Carrigtowhill, who is assisted by selectors Niall McCarthy (also Carrig), David Dorgan (Fr O’Neills), Wesley O’Brien (Carrigaline) and Ger O’Regan (St Finbarr’s).
Last year, Dónal Óg Cusack was in charge of the minor side which lost to Limerick at the Munster semi-final stage but Furlong’s appointment as manager of the 2021 intake had been announced in the autumn of 2019 as part of a new approach to ensure greater continuity between development squads and minor level.
Furlong certainly feels that it has been a positive move.
“This is our third year involved with this squad,” he says.
“We would have taken them over at U15 and Ger O’Regan is actually involved since U14 level.
“Kevin O’Donovan outlined clearly in his plan to try to get cohesion between management teams, especially on the hurling side of Cork GAA. He wanted promotion within the development squads and it’s case now that the management teams who come in at U15 generally stay on through U16 and then U17 as well.
“I think that’s a very wise move and, having experienced it, I think that there are definitely benefits to it, for sure.”
Of course, sometimes circumstances can impinge on the best-laid plans and Covid-19 and the resultant lockdown meant that this group of players didn’t have an U16 year with Cork, so to speak.
“No, we weren’t able to do anything with them,” Furlong says.
“We basically had assembled a group with a plan to start doing something but, once lockdown came in March of last year, we had no access to the players whatsoever.
“It was the same for every county, there’s no advantage or disadvantage there.”
Since getting back on the pitch, Furlong has been happy with how things have progressed. In addition to what the squad have been able to do together, there has been a busy programme at club level, ensuring that the players are primed for the serious business of championship action.
“There have been three rounds of club championship over the last few weeks,” he says.
“We had a couple of weeks of training before that where we were able to work on a few bits and pieces.
“We would say now, heading into the championship on Wednesday, that we’re very happy with our preparation.”
While it is a first game of the year for both Cork and Clare and there is no U16 form to use as a reference, there is at least some level of prior knowledge as to what awaits from the Banner boys.
“We’ve played them up along and they’re the same as every other Clare team, they’re very competitive,” Furlong says.
“You look at Clare two years ago, who played an All-Star Cork team and knocked them out. Last year, bar the last 10 minutes, Clare were very competitive against Cork in the minor.
“When we’ve played them, it’s always been close, so we’re expecting a tough battle.”
And, with no back door to soften the loss of a defeat, it is a case of loser goes home, so Furlong expects the team to be ready for action.
“Exactly, that’s it,” he says.
“We would hope that the club championship games recently would have got them up to that intensity because it is hard to replicate championship.
“We would see that as a positive and, look, knockout championship – it’s our first game, it’s their first game, there’s a lot at stake but we’re just looking for a performance on the night really and hopefully that’ll get us over the line.”
If Cork win, they will take on Limerick in a semi-final clash, again in Thurles, on July 27. In tonight’s other quarter-final tie, Tipperary face Kerry at the LIT Gaelic Grounds, also with a 7.30pm throw-in time. The Premier County will be overwhelming favourites to advance to a semi-final meeting with Waterford, also on July 27.