IF 2023 is as good a year on the Cork club hurling front as 2022 was then we’re all in for a treat.
The emergence of the Barrs as a powerhouse was obviously the big story of the year, but Inniscarra’s thrilling victory over Castlemartyr, thanks to a last-gasp Colm Casey goal in the Premier Intermediate final, was probably the standout moment.
With the above victories getting all the headlines Fr O’Neill’s’ determined, but workmanlike, two-point win over Courcey Rovers in the Senior A final probably sailed in under the radar a bit. The Ballymacoda side were hot favourites for that one, having breezed through to the final by blitzing all before them, but when they trailed the decider by 1-11 to 0-9 at half time their year was in serious jeopardy.
They needed a huge second half and to their credit, they got over the line, outscoring Rovers by 1-13 to 1-1 after the changing of ends, meaning that one of the most intriguing stories for 2023 will be how they take to Premier Senior.
They managed to get a good draw in the championship, being placed in Group B alongside Erin’s Own, Douglas and Charleville. That is not to suggest that it is an easy group. In fact, far from it, it is probably the most open of the three groups as you can make a case for qualification for all four sides.
You would often fear that a team jumping up a grade might struggle for oxygen a bit, but the last two clubs to come up, Charleville and Kanturk, found their feet fairly quickly, and Fr O’Neill’s look well-equipped to do the same. This in itself is a testament to how well the current club structures are working in Cork, as it would appear that clubs are finding their optimum levels, with no sides finding themselves a fish out of water upon promotion.
Declan Dalton and Ger Millerick might be their star names, due to their involvement with the Cork seniors, but this is a side that is far from reliant on a few star men.
They are backboned by a half-back line that could potentially be one of the strongest lines at Premier Senior level next year, with Mark O’Keeffe, Daniel Harrington and Tomas Millerick being an extremely well-balanced trio, who can feed the likes of Dalton and the electric Billy Dunne up top.
Those forwards are ably assisted by a couple of other members of the Millerick clan in John and Joe, who scored three points each in that final, while a fifth brother, Mike is as tigerish a corner-back as you will find.
Throw in a minor All-Ireland winning goalkeeper in Paudie O’Sullivan, a solid full-back in the frame of Sean O’Connor, a shrewd operator around the middle like Kevin O’Sullivan, a ball winner up front in Jason Hankard, and others such as Ryan Kenneally, Rob Cullinane and Paudie McMahon and you get the picture. This is a well-balanced side, who look well equipped to take their shot at the lofty level that is the Premier Senior grade.
The smart thinking would be that survival in your first year up would be a solid campaign, but deep down Fr O’Neill’s might be thinking that they need to strike while the iron is hot. The side they have now has a once-in-a-generation look about it, and you get the feeling that if they are going to make waves at this level then there probably is a five-year window to do so.
Ideally, they would like to emulate the achievement of Newtownshandrum, who not only maximised their own golden generation with four county titles, three Munster gongs and that cherished 2004 All-Ireland title, but possibly the true achievement of that sleepy north Cork village is maintaining its status as a Premier Senior side long after the likes of the O’Connor’s and the Mulcahy’s had hung up their boots.
That kind of achievement is a generation away for Fr O’Neill’s, and time will look after all that. Right now they should just enjoy the ride.