Last year, the first under a new championship in Cork GAA, Sarsfields topped the group of death in the Co-op SuperStores Premier Senior Hurling Championship.
The Riverstown outfit came out on top against Douglas, Midleton and Ballyhea but then, in the quarter-finals, they fell to neighbours Erin’s Own.
As the 2021 campaign begins this weekend, the champions of 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2014 are fourth favourites behind last year’s finalists Blackrock and Glen Rovers as well as Imokilly, winners in 2017, 2018 and 2019. They have Midleton for company again in Group B along with another East Cork side in Carrigtwohill while Na Piarsaigh are their opposition in Páirc Uí Rinn at 5.30pm tomorrow.
Daniel Kearney, the Sars captain, is a veteran of those four title wins and is now 31 and in his 15th year on the senior team but he doesn’t feel the passing of time has taken a toll.
“I feel as young and as fit as ever,” he says.
“You pay attention to rehab and recovery but I think you learn to appreciate the game a bit more as well. You’ve a lot of nerves when you’re younger but you learn to deal with the nerves and actually enjoy it.”
Last year was enjoyable, up to a point.
“We came through what was probably the hardest group with some great wins over Douglas and Midleton on the way,” Kearney says.
“We had built up a lot of momentum and playing the Ballyhea game, we were unlucky not to go straight into the semi-final, the Glen pipped us. It was very disappointing then, an abrupt end to what had been a good season.
“I think, as you get older, you learn to deal with losses and disappointments a bit better, just by having a bit of perspective.
“You just try to use your experience to realise that there are probably going to be more downs than ups in sport and dust yourself down and go again.
“I think we’re just all really looking forward to having another crack. We’ve a lot of good, young players coming through and we’re looking forward to playing with them and bringing them through.”
One of the alumni of the recent past is Jack O’Connor, whom Kearney describes as having had a “transformative year” with Cork.
“I think we all know Jack’s potential, in terms of the pace he has and the gears he has and his temperament,” he says.
“He has the skill-set to be a top-class inter-county player and he showed some of that this summer.”
And Kearney's hope is that O’Connor and the likes of Liam Healy, Aaron Myers, James Sweeney and the rest of the Sars young guns can fire against Na Piarsaigh.
“I don’t think we’ve played them in quite a while in the championship,” he says.
“I think all players are just looking forward to getting back playing competitive hurling. You just want to put your skills to the test and we’re really looking forward to Saturday.”
The East Cork derby of Midleton and Carrigtwohill gets things going in Group B with a clash in Páirc Uí Rinn at 2pm on Sunday.
With Group C getting underway tonight with the clash of reigning champions Blackrock and Erin’s Own at Páirc Uí Rinn, while tomorrow sees the other game in that section as St Finbarr’s clash with Charleville in Mallow (3pm).
The Barrs could be dark horses, given that Damien and Conor Cahalane and Billy Hennessy were part of the Cork senior panel while they had four – Ethan Twomey, Jack Cahalane, Brian Hayes and Ben Cunningham – on the successful Rebels U20 panel. However, having battled hard to make it back to the top tier after being unlucky when the grades were redrawn at the end of 2019, they will be keen to properly establish themselves.
Group A is likely to be keenly fought, with the city derby between last year’s beaten finalists Glen Rovers and Douglas (7.30pm in Páirc Uí Chaoimh tomorrow) set to give good insight as to what might transpire. The other game, between Bishopstown and Newtownshandrum, is in Fermoy on Sunday at 2pm.