THE Cork U20 hurlers begin their quest at winning a three-in-a-row of All-Ireland titles in a few weeks, and despite the fact that a lot of the players that helped win those two titles are still eligible, this renewal could end up being the toughest campaign of the lot.
The Rebels open their campaign on April 13 against Clare up in Ennis. Cork have certainly gotten the better of the Banner at underage level in recent seasons, and they will be looking to continue that dominance, but Sixmilebridge is always a tricky place to get a result.
A week later they host Limerick at Páirc Uí Rinn, and should they emerge in either first or second place in this mini round-robin league then they will have a Munster semi-final awaiting them on April 27. The final, incidentally, is on May 4, but there are too many bridges to cross before that comes onto the radar.
Of course, last year Cork had to conduct their entire U20 campaign short two of their main players, as both Shane Barrett and Alan Connolly were busy bolstering the senior panel and were therefore ineligible for U20 combat.
This year is a similar tale given the involvement of Dáire O’Leary and Ciarán Joyce in Cork’s league campaign. Both players were extremely influential in both of Cork’s recent U20 All-Ireland’s, even if O’Leary did miss the 2021 final against Galway due to injury, and both can expect to play considerable roles for Cork at senior level this year, despite only being 20 years of age, so Cork’s new U20 manager Donal O’Mahony will have to plan without the influential duo.
Without them, the Cork spine is undoubtedly going to be weaker, so you could well argue that being missing O’Leary and Joyce in 2022 is actually a much bigger handicap than missing Barrett and Connolly in 2021.
Cork’s ability to plough on without the Watergrasshill and Castlemartyr defenders could be very dependent upon the availability and hurling fitness of Cork’s All-Ireland winning minor centre-back from last year Ben O’Connor. The St Finbarr’s youngster has been busy starring at full-back for PBC in their run to the Munster Schools Senior Cup final but the Cork management will now hope that he can fully focus on hurling.
Normally you would worry about the ability of a young hurler to play such a physically demanding role as centre-back on an U20 side.
O’Mahony and his selectors might be tempted to look at last year’s minor side to fill O’Leary’s full-back jersey as well, as Kevin Lyons from Ballygarvan could well make the step up straight from minor to U20 inter-county level in a key position.
Thankfully there are plenty more experienced players to fill out the defensive berths, with the likes of Eoin Downey, Ethan Twomey and Brian O’Sullivan all still there from last year, while Shane Kingston from Ballinora and Midleton’s Ciarmhac Smyth, who was instrumental in the county title win last year, are also serious defensive options.
So, even without the senior contingent, the U20 defence should still be a strong one.
Further forward the likes of Michael Mullins, Brian Keating and Darragh Flynn are amongst the midfield and wing-forward options, but Flynn is set to miss out with a leg injury picked up for Ballygiblin.
In the scoring department Luke Horgan, Daniel Hogan, Jack Cahalane, now focusing on hurling only, and Ben Cunningham survive from last year’s win. Dual player Colin Walsh and the pick of last year’s minor attackers will be available for selection.
It will actually be extremely interesting to see how many of that minor winning crew that O’Mahony calls upon. That side did look a vintage crop, but despite that you would only expect three or four to go straight onto the U20 side, as it is not like Cork do not have a host of more physically mature All-Ireland U20 winners to call upon in their respective positions.
In saying that, it would be no surprise to see Jack Leahy from Dungourney and Diarmuid Healy from Lisgoold featuring. The Barrs’ William Buckley has been starring for Rochestown College lately.
Others such as Tadhg O’Connell, Eoin O’Leary, Mikey Finn, James Dwyer and Darragh O’Sullivan will be there or thereabouts also.