Without wishing to sound as if we have any kind of a grudge against Blackrock or Glen Rovers, the fact that both of last year’s Co-op SuperStores Cork Premier SHC finalists were beaten at the weekend is a positive from a point of view of competitiveness.
On Friday night, the Rockies – defending champions for the first time since 2003 – were beaten by Erin’s Own in Páirc Uí Rinn, while the Glen were downed by city rivals Douglas in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Saturday night. Obviously, with the group stage system currently in place, neither defeat was fatal but the results do point to an even spread of quality in the top grade rather than a procession whereby three sides are guaranteed to top their groups and everybody else is scrambling for the leftovers.
Qualification is not beyond the reach of the 2020 top two, by any means. Wins in each of their remaining two games would all but guarantee progression – of the nine grades across football and hurling last year, only Kiskeam in SAFC and Macroom in PIFC failed to advance with four-point totals while four hurling sides qualified with three points. Indeed, Courcey Rovers in the PIHC did so with two points, winning one and losing two matches but finishing top of a three-way tie for second place in their group.
Yesterday, we looked at momentum in terms of the teams that had won delayed 2020 county finals this summer and how it propelled them into the new season on a high. The gains in impetus from winning a first group encounter may not be as dramatic, but, by looking at last season, we can try to extrapolate the benefits of winning the championship opener.
It goes without saying that there is a material gain in terms of the two points on the board, meaning that, in effect, teams need to win just one of their other two matches to make the quarter-finals.
In addition, the nature of the fixture-list means that top seeds play second seeds in the first round, meaning that a third seed theoretically has a better chance of winning first time out than a second seed. The seedings are not hard-and-fast guidelines either, though: if they were, each group would finish with the top seed on six points, second with four points (having lost the first game and then winning the other two), third on two points and fourth with none. That’s the theory, but in 2020 only eight of the 15 groups finished in such a ‘clean’ fashion.
And what of the first-round games in terms of pointers? Well, in the premier senior group 1, Sarsfields and Douglas beat Midleton and Ballyhea respectively and both progressed; in group 2, Blackrock beat Erin’s Own while Newtownshandrum overcame Bishopstown but a draw between Erin’s Own and Newtown in the final game meant the Glounthaune side moved ahead on scoring difference; in group 3, Glen Rovers beat St Finbarr’s while Na Piarsaigh and Carrigtwohill drew – Piarsaigh’s subsequent win over the Barrs was key in sending them through despite a loss to the Glen in their final game.
Groups 1 and 3 of the senior A saw the first-round winners – Kanturk and Newcestown, and Fr O’Neills and Bride Rovers respectively – use those results as springboards for qualification, while Bandon overcame an opening-game loss to Charleville to edge out Fermoy, who had beaten Mallow.
There were just one of the three premier intermediate groups where the winners of the opening games were the qualifiers. That was Group 3, where Castlelyons and Blarney advanced and ended up meeting each other again in the final, while in Group 1 Carrigaline beat Courceys but both made it through and similarly Valley Rovers bounced back from a loss to Carrigaline to qualify. Aghada and Watergrasshill were the respective sides to win first but then fail to build on it.
All of the Intermediate A groups followed the seedings, meaning that the first seed beat second (Kildorrery-Mayfield, Éire Óg-Sarsfields and Aghabullogue-Cloughduv respectively) only for the second seeds to then win their remaining two. In the lower IHC, Group 1 began with a pair of draws before Russell Rovers and Kilbrittain won through; Group 2 had Castlemartyr and Milford both qualifying after winning their openers and in Group 3 Tracton lost to eventual winners St Catherine’s only to qualify, ahead of Dripsey and Grenagh, who drew their first outing.
All told, 22 of the 30 sides that reached the knockout stages in their championships did so after avoiding defeat. Against that, there were eight sides that suffered a setback but didn’t allow to become a debilitating one, which was one of the reasons that the system was changed.
This Saturday sees the Glen up against Bishopstown in Páirc Uí Rinn while Blackrock do battle with Charleville in Banteer. As it happens, both of last year’s finalists are up against opponents that didn’t win last weekend – Bishopstown drew with Newtownshandrum while Charleville lost out to St Finbarr’s – meaning that there will be a knockout feel to both games. All concerned will be hoping that the cut-and-thrust nature of the games can bring out the best in them.