WITH Cork’s not participating in the pre-season Munster SHL, home supporters will have to wait until February 5 to have a look at what is sure to be a much-changed team that will face Clare in the opening round of the league.
Cork have not been successful in the secondary competition since 1998, and we all know what followed a year later when Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s charges brought back the MacCarthy Cup to Leeside.
There used to be a strongly held theory in the past that winning the league or even participation in the final could militate against you in the championship. That, of course, was simply not the case as has been proven many times over the past 20 years.
Since the turn of the new century, Tipperary, Kilkenny, on numerous occasions, Galway and Limerick have been successful in bringing back both trophies to their counties, Kilkenny doing the double six times.
In fact, a strong league campaign, resulting in the trophy being lifted at the end of it could prove very beneficial in terms of building up momentum and instilling plenty of confidence into a side, particularly if it’s made up of young and inexperienced players who are being introduced to the top level of the game for the first time.
That is likely to be the case with Cork in the forthcoming campaign, with a lot of emphasis on players that might not have that much first-hand experience on the biggest stage.
Cork are bracketed with Clare, Offaly, Limerick, Galway and Wexford in Group A and the management will want a strong return from quite a few of those games and will be looking for a number of new players to put their hand up for inclusion in the Munster championship which will follow on very quickly.
Kingston will be hoping to give every member of his squad a run-out in those league encounters and, of course, there would not be much point in having them there if that was not the case.
We are talking here about the likes of newcomers Ciarán Joyce, Darragh Flynn, Ethan Twomey, Sam Quirke and Tommy O’Connell, young players with plenty of potential.
Cork’s opening game will be against Brian Lohan’s Clare on Saturday, February 5 at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, a game that will form a double-header with the Banner County. That should certainly be a night to look forward to because it will be the first competitive game for the footballers under the new management led by Keith Ricken.
The hurling game will be very interesting too because it will bring back memories that are still very fresh of their All-Ireland qualifier last season when Cork emerged only after one of the saves of the year from Patrick Collins in the last seconds of the game from Tony Kelly. Without that sublime stop from the Ballinhassig player, it would have been a much shorter season than it turned out to be.
That Saturday evening encounter is certainly one of the games that Kingston will be looking to for the maximum return from.
Kingston’s men will be on the road to Tullamore to take on Offaly in the second league outing and whilst Michael Fennelly has turned things around quite a lot in the Faithful County, that is another game that Cork should be firm favourites to take full points from.
Next up will be the big one, a visit to the Gaelic Grounds to tackle the country’s best team, Limerick.
Cork’s recent memories of encounters with John Kiely’s team are not good ones, both in league and championship and the fact that the All-Ireland champions are visitors to Leeside for the opening game of the Munster championship adds a bit of extra spice to the occasion.
And where Cork are concerned, putting down a firm marker in that league encounter would do no harm at all where the big championship clash is concerned.
The manner of how Limerick dealt with matters last season is going to make things difficult for any county that comes up alongside them but you have to believe that they are not invincible and every team can be taken down at some stage.
The visit of Galway to Páirc Uí Chaoimh will be all that bit more interesting too this time because of the fact that in the opposite dugout to Kingston will be one of the greatest hurlers of all time, Henry Shefflin.
In fact, every game that Galway plays this year, be it challenge, league or championship will generate more focus because of his presence. They should be a formidable force at all times, given how successful the Tribe have been at underage level, winning so many minor titles in recent times.
The collision with Wexford at Wexford Park will be of considerable interest too because for the first time in a number of years there will be another new man wearing the manager’s bib, former Tipp star Darragh Egan who will be looking for a quick, early bounce from his players.
And, of course, history has taught us that nothing ever comes easy where that venue is concerned.
At the end of those five league encounters, we should know quite a lot more about the direction Cork are travelling in and be in a stronger position to assess their championship prospects.
The bottom line, though, is that Cork hurlers need a very positive league campaign.