Three weeks after Cork’s inter-county season ended, the Co-op SuperStores County Hurling Championships kicking into gear this weekend, with tonight’s premier senior clash of champions Blackrock and Erin’s Own in Páirc Uí Rinn (7.30pm) getting things going.
For Alan Connolly, part of the Cork panel that reached the All-Ireland final last month, it’s a welcome return to action with the Rockies.
“I think you’re better off going straight back into it,” he says. “You need it, you need the club to be there, so it’s way better.
“You’re straight back into it so it’s just like last year, really. It’s not like we ever left, it’s the same as always!”
Last year, Blackrock bridged an 18-year gap as they reclaimed the Seán Óg Murphy Cup with Fergal Ryan’s side securing an extra-time win over Glen Rovers in the final.
“We’ve been knocking on the door for a couple of years, making semi-finals and finals, so it showed we were capable of taking that last step,” Connolly says.
“We just focused on ourselves, really, taking it game by game.
“That’s about it really, just focused on ourselves, every training session, you just take it as is.”
“Fergal is great, he’s a big part of that. We just pay attention to what he says, really, and take things as they come. The management team are very experienced, it’s an honour really to play for them.”
Last year, Blackrock beat Erin’s Own in the group stage en route to going all the way and it was a special victory for Connolly.
“Friday night is our focus. It was very close last year and we both know what to expect from one another so we’ll see what happens.
“We know there’s going to be a bounty on our heads, but I can’t wait for it. The structure is good, too - the fact that there are three games for every team. Whatever comes after that will come.”
Connolly’s displays with Blackrock and then the Cork U20s saw him become a regular impact sub for Kieran Kingston’s senior squad.
“It’s about just showing up, doing your bit in training and seeing how things go,” he says.
“It was a great experience, really enjoyable. I learned a lot from it, anyway.”
And the toughest thing to adjust to?
“Just the speed, really,” he says. “The ball is up and down the pitch every 10 seconds, so fitness is one thing you’d have to work on. You’re up against stronger defenders, too!
“You learn on the job really, you don’t have time to think about it, it’s just game by game and it’s a game of ball at the end of the day.”
And that’s how Erin’s Own are treating tonight’s match, with Cian O’Connor not getting too caught up in the opposition.
“It’s not just about Blackrock,” he says, “every team can beat every other team in the championship. Blackrock are a good side, there’s no denying that, and we found that ourselves last year.
“We played them in the first round and ended up four points off them. That was our first game last year and if you lose your first game fellas can get down about the team’s chances, but we dug deep and did well enough after it.
“The group is tough enough this year - Blackrock, county champions, Charleville, who’ve been phenomenal in the last few years, and the Barrs. We’ve played the ‘Barrs a few times in the last few years and it’s always been a tough game.
“Back in May, when the group was announced, saw people calling it the group of death and there are good teams in it, but we’ll be ready.”