Rob Downey on the importance of Fitzgibbon Cup hurling and Cork's young guns 

Éamonn Murphy talks to the UCC, Glen Rovers and Rebel defender on the challenges ahead this season
Rob Downey on the importance of Fitzgibbon Cup hurling and Cork's young guns 

UCC and Cork hurler, Rob Downey teamed up with Electric Ireland to preview the Electric Ireland Fitzgibbon Cup. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

ROB Downey hopes the Cork senior squad can get a lift from the underage All-Irelands hoovered up in 2021, a minor and two U20s. 

Cork also captured an U17 All-Ireland in 2017, as well as reaching the minor All-Ireland final that season and U21/U20 finals in 2018 and '19, with the Glen and UCC hurler involved across those campaigns.

"You look at Limerick a few years ago at U21 and that Clare team that won three U21s," he said at the launch of the Electric Ireland Fitzgibbon Cup. "You sometimes get a good crop of players together, so I'm not too sure about structures. If you get players at the right time that are nurtured and coached well enough they can do great things."

That could of course put the pressure on in terms of a starting berth; Ciarán Joyce is particularly well-regarded. Downey was a towering presence at the edge of the square in Cork's victories over Clare, Dublin and Kilkenny before the Rebels' complete misfire against Limerick. His aerial prowess thrilled the supporters though he's a better half-back, where he excelled for the Glen over the winter, making the Reardens' All-Star Club Hurling 15.

"There's no real guarantee about any spot in any team. Going back to the start of the year you're down the bottom of the ladder and working as hard as you can to get into the starting 15 again. Playing full-back wasn't new to me, because I'd been there with Cork and the Glen and other teams. 

I'm not too sure what Kieran or anyone else's plans are about where to play me or even if I'll be on the team.

"I do prefer the half-back line but it's a huge honour to be picked for any Cork team in any position."

Robert Downey of Cork is tackled by Eoin Cody of Kilkenny at Croke Park. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Robert Downey of Cork is tackled by Eoin Cody of Kilkenny at Croke Park. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

There have been other alterations to the Cork panel. Conor Lehane is back after firing Midleton to the Seán Óg Murphy canister, while Eoin Cadogan, Colm Spillane and Bill Cooper are among the departees. 

"Conor is a brilliant player and a great addition to the Cork set-up. Players will always go in and go out all the time, that's just sport."

One thing that hasn't changed is Patrick Horgan's quest to get that elusive Celtic Cross.

"We all just work towards the one goal and I know Patrick is the same."

At club level, there's a new manager at the helm in Blackpool, Mark Kennefick, stepping up from a run of trophies with underage teams.

"Mark had my team from U9 all the way up to U21. We won a Premier 1 Minor county [2017] and since then they've added another couple of minor wins [U17 and U18 last year]."

With the split-season format, Rob, and his younger brother Eoin who is currently preparing for his Leaving Cert in CBC but will anchor the Cork U20 rearguard again after an All-Ireland last summer, will be tied up for the Glen's league campaign, due to commence in March. 

"Any day I can get down to training I'll be there. I wouldn't be training obviously but we all try and get down together. We probably won't get much time to play in the league with the club, apart from maybe a fella coming back from injury."

Bishopstown's Colm O'Driscoll wins the sliotar from Glen Rovers' Robert Downey. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Bishopstown's Colm O'Driscoll wins the sliotar from Glen Rovers' Robert Downey. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Here on Leeside, no one underestimates the importance of the Electric Ireland Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cup competitions.

UCC have collected silverware in both in the modern era, while CIT's breakthrough Sigerson success in 2009 featured a core of the Cork team that lifted Sam Maguire the following year, including Paul Kerrigan, Daniel Goulding, Ray Carey and Colm O'Neill. Seamus Harnedy is a prime example of a player who graduated to the elite level after developing with the College, under the watchful eye of the late Paul O'Connor.

Cork defender Rob Downey believes his experience in the 2020 Fitzgibbon Cup victory was crucial to his progress since, as he was often deployed at full-back in the Skull and Crossbones geansaí and an All-Star nominee in the role last year.

The Fitz is a stepping stone for a lot of players, where players are found for inter-county, with huge crowds and interest in the games. It's a platform to better yourself and make yourself known.

"There's a mix of all of Munster and a few Kilkenny fellas in our panel and you're marking different players at training and getting to know their style so it's great for your confidence. It brings you on leaps and bounds."

UCC's Robert Downey celebrates the Fitzgibbon Cup semi-final win in 2020. Picture: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
UCC's Robert Downey celebrates the Fitzgibbon Cup semi-final win in 2020. Picture: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

BALANCING ACT

Third-level crosses over with inter-county preseason and the league, which puts the squeeze on many players, including the bizarre and surely unnecessary situation where Kerry's Tony Brosnan and Jack Savage lined out in the Sigerson and McGrath Cup on the same day. 

Downey believes Cork and UCC have the right balance.

"Kieran Kingston has been brilliant about it but look his brother Tom is the UCC manager so that obviously makes it a small bit easier. We're never pulled or dragged or made do both. It's always a decision made by both sets of management teams. The load is never too much.

"With Covid there was a worry it wouldn't go ahead again but thankfully that's not the case. 

"A big part of all of it is the S&C and physios. If there's a match on a Wednesday with UCC and a game at the weekend with Cork, that's monitored. Player burnout is watched. In fairness, they always look after us."

Downey had a hectic 2021, rolling from Cork duty into the Premier SHC with Glen Rovers, where they reached a third successive county final. He's confident he recharged in the run-up to Christmas, while Cork had a team holiday for a week as well as a reward for making the All-Ireland.

"UCC and Cork were very good to us, they told us to come back in our own time when we felt it was right. I was grateful for that because it was a long, ole year, going from a county final straight into inter-county and Fitzgibbon would have been tough. I got my break in December."

While the likes of Shane Kingston, Robbie O'Flynn, Mark Coleman and Darragh Fitzgibbon are no longer in the College squad, Downey has Niall O'Leary, Conor Cahalane, Jack O'Connor, Tommy O'Connell, Daire Connery and Shane Barrett from the Cork panel alongside him. Waterford's Iarlaith Daly, Limerick's Conor Boylan and Tipp's Mark Kehoe and Conor Bowe are also involved, while MTC Cork can call on Ger Collins, Alan Connolly and Sam Quirke.

College teammates and county rivals, Iarlaith Daly (Waterford) and Rob Downey (Cork), promoting Electric Ireland’s #FirstClassRivals campaign. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie
College teammates and county rivals, Iarlaith Daly (Waterford) and Rob Downey (Cork), promoting Electric Ireland’s #FirstClassRivals campaign. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

UCC have a difficult group, with NUIG, UCD and Mary I, to negotiate before any three-in-a-row bid.

"We haven't talked about three in a row, we're just trying to focus on Mary I because it'll be a tough game, away from home. Anyone away games in the Fitzgibbon are tough. By the stats, we are going for three in a row, with no Fitzgibbon last year, but we're not thinking about it like that. The last time we won it, was my first time playing, I wasn't eligible the previous year.

"Preparations are going very well, even with UCC having so many players from different counties but there have been plenty of nights where everyone has been present. We're tapering off a bit now with the game coming up on Wednesday.

"We might be after getting the hardest group, even though every game in the Fitzgibbon is hard. We're away twice so that'll be tricky but with the conditions and weather, you have to be ready for all of them."

BOUNCING BACK

Getting his hands on another Fitzgibbon Cup medal would be a boost for the 22-year-old, after the lows of last season's deciders.

Cork's Robert Downey after the defeat to Limerick. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Cork's Robert Downey after the defeat to Limerick. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

"It was a disappointing way to finish the year, losing to Limerick in the All-Ireland final and then losing a third county final in a row with the Glen. The All-Ireland final was something new but it was also a very disappointing day. It's all learning. 

You're back training early so you don't have too much time to be looking back, you can't dwell on the past, it's all about moving forward.

"They were two separate events in my head. I was after forgetting about the All-Ireland final, in that you'd a couple of group games with the Glen before you even got to a quarter-final, semi-final and then into the final. If you're looking back at the year as a whole, they're obviously two big disappointments but one didn't affect the other."

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