Cork U20s need young guns to step up with key hurlers out for trip to Clare

Rebels will be without Ciarán Joyce, Daire O'Leary and the injured Darragh Flynn for a difficult game in Sixmilebridge
Cork U20s need young guns to step up with key hurlers out for trip to Clare

Ethan Twomey, St Finbarr's, battles Eoin O'Leary, Glen Rovers, both members of the Cork U20 squad. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

LATE in the first half of the Clare-Limerick Munster U20 round-robin game in the Gaelic Grounds last Wednesday, Clare had a couple of stonewall goal chances that would have given them even more of a commanding half-time lead than they already had.

Clare were playing against the breeze in the second half but they continued to create clear-cut goal chances. They manufactured five in total but didn’t take any, which left the door ajar for Limerick. And they drove straight through it in the closing minutes with 1-1 from Cathal O’Neill giving Limerick a one-point win.

It was a cruel defeat for Clare who played some heroic stuff, but failing to score just one goal was even more damaging when Limerick raised three green flags.

Clare still made a mockery of the pre-match odds because Limerick were heavily fancied. Cork will be favourites when the sides meet on Wednesday night in Sixmilebridge, but Clare are fighting for their lives now to stay in this competition. And if they play as well as they did last week, Cork will do well to beat them.

At face value, Cork deserve to be raging favourites; they still have a batch of players from last year’s All-Ireland winning U20 squad; a number of players off the All-Ireland minor winning side – which beat Clare by 40 points in the Munster championship – have made the step-up to this grade.

Yet when these sides met at minor level – in what effectively was a Munster semi-final in the final round-robin game – Clare turned over a Cork side that had been unbeaten up to that point of the competition.

A number of those Cork minors in 2019 showed their class with the U20s over the following two seasons, but the three from that minor squad who stood out the most at this level in 2020 and 2021 – Ciarán Joyce, Dáire O’Leary and Darragh Flynn – are not available now.

Cork still have a batch of the team which played in last year’s final against Galway – Cathal Wilson, Eoin Downey, Ethan Twomey, Brian O’Sullivan, Darragh Flynn, Jack Cahalane and Daniel Hogan all started, while Ben Cunningham, Luke Horgan, Michael Mullins and Colm McCarthy came on that evening.

Cork's Jack Cahalane with Galway goalkeeper Paddy Rabbitte and Shane Morgan in last year's U20 All-Ireland hurling final. Picture: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo
Cork's Jack Cahalane with Galway goalkeeper Paddy Rabbitte and Shane Morgan in last year's U20 All-Ireland hurling final. Picture: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

Having 11 players underage from one All-Ireland winning team underlines the potential of this side, especially when it is buttressed by one of the most impressive All-Ireland winning minors teams in decades.

Cork are already favourites to win three Munster and All-Irelands in a row but that task would be far easier with Joyce, O’Leary and Flynn on board, although Flynn may be back for the Limerick game.

Cork were able to get by without Shane Barrett and Alan Connolly last year. They are excellent players, but replacing defenders, especially defenders as good as Joyce and O’Leary, has always been a more difficult task for Cork in recent years than replacing forwards.

Cork have trained hard. 

Challenge games have gone well, especially against Kilkenny, but their preparations still probably haven’t been as smooth as management would have liked either for various different reasons.

After cutting a number of players from the squad, management were forced to call back some of those players, largely because of injuries and players involved in late freshers colleges’ matches.

Three of last year’s minors are expected to start but some of the 2021 minors have struggled with niggly injuries. That was only natural because of the increased training load and difficulty in trying to bridge that gap against players two years older.

One of the best minors from that team – Ben O’Connor – isn’t available because he’s involved with the Irish Schools rugby team, who are away in France at the moment.

PBC full-back Ben O'Connor is a gifted hurler too. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
PBC full-back Ben O'Connor is a gifted hurler too. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Cork will still be hugely confident, especially considering the huge experience within the squad, both on the field and amongst the management.

Yet one of the biggest advantages Cork had last year was the momentum gained from the All-Ireland success of the 2020 win just 10 days before the 2021 campaign kicked off.

That was never more evident than in the Munster semi-final against Tipperary, which Cork won by six points. Cork were able to call on seven of the players which had just won the 2020 title but the team had barely trained together.

That lack of preparatory time was obvious in the first half when Cork trailed by six points at the break, but Cork exploded in the third quarter. Manager Pat Ryan said afterwards that the momentum and confidence from the win a week and a half earlier had carried them through.

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Clare may not have won last Wednesday but they will be buoyed up by such an impressive performance. They’re battle-hardened from the experience while being in the last-chance saloon in front of their own supporters should inspire Clare even more.

The Sixmilebridge venue is another factor in Clare’s favour, a tight pitch with the crowd right on top of the players, which will make the atmosphere more intimidating again for Cork.

Scoring difference can be strange at times but the maths still look simple for Clare in a three-team group, where one win might still be enough to see them through.

A Cork win will put them straight into the semi-finals, even with the Limerick game to play. That will be Cork’s focus. But the players and management know too that this match won’t be as straightforward as the Cork public expect it to be.

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