WHAT a run Cork underage hurling is on, winning games at a rate of knots in the minor and U20 grades.
For years highly rated underage Cork sides were being dumped out of their various championships early, as an entire generation of young Cork hurlers got used to the demoralising feeling of defeat to their near neighbours.
Last Wednesday’s thrilling Munster U20 final success over Limerick was Cork’s third provincial crown in four years, in what was their fifth consecutive final at the grade.
That is half a decade of up-and-coming talent within the county that have, at least, got to experience what it is like to represent Cork in a major final, with a good many of those actually getting to experience the wonderful feeling of victory.
This year’s minors are only the second crop from Cork to reach a Munster final since 2008, so declaring Leeside a minor monopoly is incredibly premature. Hopefully though, the weighty monkey on the back of Cork underage teams has now been lifted, as it is difficult to underestimate the burden that young Cork hurlers have had to carry in the last 15 years or so.
Each year the minor and U21 sides were tasked with brushing away the cobwebs of history and restoring Cork hurling to what is viewed on Leeside as its rightful place.
It took a while to get the ball rolling, with the Munster minor and All-Ireland U17 triumphs of 2017 being added to by the efforts of the U20/U21 sides of recent years, but finally, we are in a situation where dozens of young Cork hurlers know what it feels like to play, and win, in big finals again. The importance of this cannot be overemphasised.
This means, of course, that there should be no weight of the world on the next vintages coming through, and in fact, they hopefully now have teams and individuals a year or two ahead of them, at their own and neighbouring clubs, to inspire them to go and play and win in the Cork jersey.
And that is the key now. Cork hurling must drive on from this point. No resting on the laurels. These wins, which bring a genuine sense of good feeling to the county, must only be the start of it.
Given that this year’s Cork minor team look like a decent side, albeit they have not won anything at this point, and therefore expectations have to be tempered accordingly, it is still safe to assume that Cork are going to remain competitive, at least, at U20 level for the next three years or so.
Up to a dozen of the players who featured in the U20 win over Limerick are underage again next year, so they will be looking to have a right crack at retaining their title.
Of course, one of the main issues facing the U20s next year is the potential loss of some of their star players to the senior team, as occurred this season with both Shane Barrett and Alan Connolly, and although Pat Ryan’s side were expected to struggle without them they haven’t fared too badly.
Ciaran Joyce and Daire O’Leary would be the two most likely to be promoted, as both have really looked the part playing in their own age group, but it would be no surprise for others to also be called up, and especially so if the seniors do not prevail in the All-Ireland championship in the next month.
These recent successes have felt a little, for those of us old enough to remember, what it used to be like back in the ’80s and ’90s. Finally, the younger Corkonians are getting a taste.
Long may it continue.