Christy O'Connor: It’s time for Cork hurlers to lay down an early marker

New manager Pat Ryan has his eyes firmly on bringing through new players for championship but the Rebels must take preseason seriously
Christy O'Connor: It’s time for Cork hurlers to lay down an early marker

Limerick's Aaron Gillane taunts Cork's Eoin Cadogan after scoring a goal in the Munster Hurling League final in 2020. Picture: INPHO/Ken Sutton

WHEN Cork played Limerick in the Munster league final in the Gaelic Grounds in early January 2020, Limerick clearly came armed with intent and destruction on their minds.

Still hurting from the side’s previous meeting in 2019, when Cork turned them over in the championship in the Gaelic Grounds, Limerick were also still smarting from their defeat to Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final the previous August.

Limerick led by three points at half time but they could have been out of sight after hitting 11 wides. 

Conor Lehane of Cork loses grip of his hurley during the Co-Op Superstores Munster Hurling League final. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Conor Lehane of Cork loses grip of his hurley during the Co-Op Superstores Munster Hurling League final. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Cork had no answer in the second half as Limerick outscored them by 0-18 to 0-6 in that period.

Cork were blown away by Limerick’s ferocity, hunger and intensity but they laid down a marker to Cork, and everyone else, that they were forging a new path.

Similar to Kilkenny’s defeat to Galway in the 2001 All-Ireland semi-final, that 2019 semi-final loss represented the turning point for Limerick, who haven’t lost a championship match since.

Cork were never going to get carried away with a Munster league final defeat but that game still represented a portent of what was to come; in their six league and championship meetings since, Cork have only won one game, a league match in February 2022 when Limerick delivered their worst performance in years.

That 2020 Munster league final is a distant memory now but it was also the last time Cork played in the competition. There was no Munster league in 2021 while Cork didn’t take part it in last year as they were a team holiday in Tenerife.

Cork could have fielded a development squad or an U20 team in the competition, as the Kerry footballers did for the 2020 McGrath Cup when their senior panel was out of the country on a team holiday. But they choose not to.

In any case, Cork’s opening game against Kerry on January 5th presents new manager Pat Ryan with the ideal opportunity to settle in away from the glare and spotlight that will inevitably fall on him and Cork once they begin their league campaign in four weeks.

Any pre-season competition is always an experimental project but Ryan’s hand is both compromised, and yet paradoxically strengthened in the competition, with Cork having 23 players involved with colleges teams this year – 20 playing Fitzgibbon and three with Freshers sides.

Managing the training load of those players will be a difficult task with the upcoming Fitzgibbon and league campaigns, especially when a significant share of those players are still adjusting to life on a senior inter-county panel.

A lot of those young guns will get game-time during the Munster league but, on the flipside, Cork will also field strong, experienced sides for most of the games – because they’ll have to once the Fitzgibbon starts ramping up next week.

Those players will also need the games, especially when Cork’s season in 2022 ended two months earlier than it did in 2021. The squad is bound to rotate heavily during the Munster league, especially if Cork keep winning.

But given Ryan’s history with the Cork U20s, players’ performances in training will dictate if they wear the jersey more so than reputation, or what they have done in the past.

Ryan admitted as much in a recent interview with Maurice Brosnan in the Irish Examiner. “Part of my philosophy is character,” he said. “I want lads who want to play for Cork. I’m a big believer in fairness. Twenty six lads in the panel, you treat everyone with respect. Treat them all the same.”

NAILED DOWN

Ryan and his management’s key focus in the early part of the season, extending from the Munster league right into the National League will be to try and settle on the spine of the team.

Ciarán Joyce has already looked to have nailed down the centre-back jersey on the basis of his league and championship performances in 2022, but Ryan will be looking to shore up or reconfigure that central spine with other options.

Daire O’Leary was hammered with injury last year but he will get a chance at full-back. Robert Downey, who played some excellent matches at full-back in the 2021 championship, will also surely get a raft of games in the number 3 jersey.

Or do Cork take a chance on Eoin Downey in that pivotal position? The younger Downey is an excellent player who will play a big part for Cork going forward during this decade. 

The Munster league may inform Ryan and his management if Eoin Downey is ready to make that step up this year – in any defensive position, particularly at wing-back – like Joyce did in 2022.

Eoin Downey was on the panel last year, even though he was only doing his Leaving Cert. Ethan Twomey was also training with the squad but a batch of new players have been brought in by Ryan; Cathal Cormack, Cormac Beausang, Ben Cunningham, Brian Hayes, Conor O’Callaghan, Colin Walsh and Gavin Connolly, while Declan Dalton is also back on the panel. 

Cork's Conor O'Callaghan and Eoghan O'Neill of Dublin in the 2017 minor semi-final. Picture: INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan
Cork's Conor O'Callaghan and Eoghan O'Neill of Dublin in the 2017 minor semi-final. Picture: INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

The physical profile of those players has also underlined how Ryan is favouring bigger, powerful men.

Dalton has a lot of experience, but he and all of the other new players in the squad should get their opportunity to showcase what they can do at this level over the next few weeks.

Nobody will be getting carried away with results or individual performances but Ryan will be looking for attitude, desire and application as much as anything else.

This time three years ago, Cork found out from Limerick how important it is to showcase those qualities every day. Irrespective of the competition.

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