THE decision to split the Cork County SHC into two sections, Premier Senior and Senior A was a practical one.
It became increasingly obvious that some teams were not up to competing at the higher level and therefore taking a step down made sense where they were concerned.
Also, you had a number of teams who had competed strongly at premier intermediate level without securing the ultimate prize and putting the two together to form the 12-team Senior A Championship gave us a very competitive competition.
Last season provided some wonderful entertainment in the grade and it culminated in a spectacular final between Fr O’Neill’s and Charleville. The latter trailed by nine points at the interval but, aided by the elements, they reeled their East Cork rivals in and in a dramatic climax they took home the new Jim Forbes trophy by the bare minimum.
They are now berthed in the Premier Senior Championship and the expectation is that they will be difficult opponents for their three group rivals.
For Fr O’Neill’s, it’s time for them to go again in the lower grade and try to go one better in their attempt to reach the top table.
They are one of the favourites to be elevated at the end of the campaign, but at the same time, there will be a realisation in Ahavine that nothing will come easy in a championship that contains some very good sides, all with similar hopes of being the successful unit.
O’Neill’s find themselves in a group containing two more East Cork teams, Killeagh and Cloyne, with the always resilient Newcestown making up the quartet.
At first glance, the perception would be that O’Neill’s and Newcestown will be the two to come through and that’s based on last season’s form, O’Neill’s beaten in the final and Newcestown beaten by O’Neill’s in the semi-final.
However, Killeagh and Cloyne might have something to say about that and with so many East Cork derbies in the group, you would rule nothing out.
Cloyne and Killeagh engaged met at the group stage last season with victory going to Cloyne.
That was their only win in the group while Killeagh lost their three games before defeating Kilworth in a relegation battle.
O’Neill’s, backboned by Deccie Dalton, Billy Dunne, Ger Millerick, Mark O’Keeffe, and Jason Hankard among others are the big fancy in this group and they should emerge with Newcestown.
The most competitive group in this grade seems to be the one containing Kanturk, Bandon, Fermoy, and Blarney.
Blarney excelled last season in taking the PIHC title and they have three superb hurlers in the ranks in Mark Coleman, Shane Barrett and Padraig Power.
That’s just for starters and they are entitled to be listed among the favourites for the overall prize come season’s end.
But this group, maybe terming it the group of death would be appropriate, has huge potential and all the games should be hard-fought.
Kanturk lost to Charleville last season in one of the best games of the championship in the semi-finals and while Anthony Nash is now starring for South Liberties in Limerick and will be missed, there’s still a strong spine to this team and they will be there or thereabouts.
Bandon, always competitive, lost to Kanturk in last season’s semi-final after being second in a strong group that featured Charleville, Fermoy and Mallow.
Don’t write them off easily either and the same goes for Fermoy who still have plenty of good hurlers in their ranks. However, our fancies in this group to progress are Blarney and Kanturk.
The final group contains Ballyhea, Bride Rovers, Ballymartle, and Mallow and this is perhaps the most difficult of all the three groups to call. Ballyhea will be very determined to make up for last season’s relegation while Ballymartle will look for a better dividend too.
They took a bad beating last season at the hands of O’Neill’s and their clash with Rovers is a repeat of last season’s group encounter which Bride Rovers won fairly convincingly. Mallow will be hoping for much better too this time, securing just one point from their three group games last season.
Sometimes you don’t know what to expect from them, but on a good day, they are capable of matching the best. The belief from this quarter is that Bride Rovers, with the Roche twins in top form, will emerge from this group and it’s very difficult to make a forecast after that.
So our six to go through from the three groups are Fr O’Neill’s, Newcestown, Blarney, Kanturk, Bride Rovers, and Ballyhea.
Getting off to a positive start will be prioritised by all the teams and that will put you on the front foot immediately.
For the losers, it’s going to be a case of winning your next two games if hopes of progressing are to be entertained.
And with the games coming thick and fast, the margin for error will be minimal.
The restructuring of the championship last season was a resounding success, let’s hope for something similar this time.