SINCE the splitting of the intermediate grade in two in the mid-2000s, the second tier hurling championship in Cork has been hotly contested and that is certainly the case since the establishment of senior A at the end of 2019.
With premier senior limited to just 12 clubs, it meant that seven teams that were previously senior joined with five from the premier intermediate championship to form a grade where victory has to be earned and there is little or no room for coasting.
In 2020, Charleville came out on top, having gone close to securing premier status in 2019 as they just missed out on a senior quarter-final spot. They were in effect repeating their heroics of 2018, when they won the premier intermediate championship but it was no procession and they had just a point to spare on Fr O’Neills in the final.
As is the way with these things, the vanquished Ballymacoda/Ladysbridge side are installed as the 5/2 favourites with the bookmakers to go a step further, with Kanturk behind them at 4/1. However, it’s indicative of the evenness of the competition that Blarney, last year’s winners of the premier intermediate – now the third tier – are the third in the rankings at 6/1.
With manager Paul O’Leary reverting to being a player, Ronan Byrne is now the man in charge of Blarney and he has enlisted Cork U20 coach and selector Donal O’Mahony for the backroom team. Speaking toearlier this year, Byrne praised the job O’Leary had done.
“The structures he has put in place have made it a lot easier for me to step into the role,” he said.
“It’s definitely easier coming in like this rather than having to start from scratch. The hope is that it will be a continuation of what we were doing for the last two years.”
First up for Blarney is a Group A meeting with Fermoy in Riverstown at 2pm tomorrow. With Cork seniors Mark Coleman and Shane Barrett and U20 star Pádraig Power giving them quality in key areas, the Mid-Cork side will be keen to get off to a good start. Fermoy finished third in their group last year behind Charleville and Bandon and they have the Lilywhites for company again in 2021.
Bandon’s first outing is a rematch of last year’s quarter-final defeat to Kanturk, with Coachford the venue at 3pm tomorrow. Having lost some key players to retirement, this year could be about transition for the West Cork side and Kanturk will want to show that their semi-final showing was the least they are capable of, though they will be without goalkeeper Anthony Nash, who has transferred to Limerick’s South Liberties. The Duhallow side gave a good account of themselves in RedFM Hurling League 2, only losing to Erin’s Own in the final after extra time.
Both Group B games take place at 2pm on Sunday. Castletownroche is the venue for the meeting of Ballyhea – down from premier senior – and Bride Rovers. Bride will have been disappointed with their quarter-final showing against Newcestown last year but sides that have been relegated can sometimes find it difficult to find their feet and so Ballyhea will look for a strong start, with Pa O’Callaghan likely to be leading that charge.
Mallow - bottom of their group and keen to avoid a similar showing - and Ballymartle, who finished third in their group behind Fr O’Neills and Bride in 2020, are the other two sides making up that quartet and they meet in Blarney.
Group C sees a reconvening of Newcestown, Cloyne and Killeagh, who had Kanturk for company last year and this time are joined by O’Neills.
Neither Cloyne nor Killeagh could get past the group stage last year and so whoever wins their clash in Castlemartyr at 3pm tomorrow will hope to generate enough momentum to secure a knockout spot.
The O’Neills-Newcestown clash, in Páirc Uí Rinn at 2pm on Sunday, is a repeat of last year’s semi-final, which O’Neills won by 4-13 to 1-13.