Cork begin their Co-op SuperStores Munster Hurling League campaign on Thursday night and it’s a case of back to normal for the competition for 2023.
Austin Stack Park in Tralee is the venue as Kerry host the Rebels for what will be Pat Ryan’s first proper match in charge. With the league back to two groups of three, the All-Ireland champions Limerick are in the same section and Cork will host them at Páirc Uí Rinn next Sunday week, with the Canon O’Brien Cup game against UCC in between, next Tuesday night. The winners of the two MHL groups will meet in the final on January 22.
Due to Covid-19, the league was not held at all in 2021 and then, last year, it was a straight knockout competition. However, it featured five teams rather than six – Cork were unable to take part as the scheduling clashed with their team holiday.
Kerry beat Tipperary in a quarter-final tie and then lost to Limerick in the semi-finals. The Shannonsiders ended up being beaten in the final by Clare, who had overcome Waterford in the last four.
The change in format did of course mean a switch in name from ‘Munster Hurling League’ to ‘Munster Hurling Cup’ but otherwise it wasn’t a massive culture shock – after all, the key purpose is as an early-year pipe-opener. The winners won’t be taking the cup around the schools and giving children half-days but the players blooded in January could prove to be valuable squad members come the summertime.
For Pat Ryan and Cork, the competition will serve as an opportunity to bed in ahead of the league and provide an early chance to assess the new additions to the panel. Regardless of what happens in the Allianz Hurling League or the Munster and All-Ireland championships, come the end of the year nobody is going to be reflecting on how well or badly Cork did in the Munster league.
In any case – for whatever reason – the Munster Hurling League (in place since 2016) and its forebear, the Waterford Crystal Cup (2006-15) were never hugely successful hunting grounds for the Rebels. Only in 2017 did Cork come out on top.
Back then, the county was at a low ebb after Kieran Kingston’s first year in charge, 2016, ended with a qualifier defeat to Wexford and the external expectations were low.
However, with Mark Coleman, Luke Meade, Shane Kingston and Darragh Fitzgibbon all featuring in the starting line-up, Cork had a 100 percent record in the round-robin stages, recording four wins – Tipperary didn’t take part. Then, they overcame Limerick by 1-21 to 0-20 in the final in the Gaelic Grounds.
Coleman and Kingston had made their debuts in the Wexford loss but that quartet were essentially newcomers and the continued to gain experience during the national league as Cork won three of their five games.
While it might have seemed like a gamble to select those four in the championship opener away to reigning All-Ireland champions Tipperary that May, the fact that they had been given game-time since January stood to them and Cork recorded a victory that led to them going on to claim the Munster title and reaching the All-Ireland semi-final.
Cork also made the decider in 2020, losing to Limerick. In the Waterford Crystal Cup, which included third-level college sides as well as counties, Cork reached the final in 2007, 2011 and 2015 but lost on all three occasions, to Tipperary, Waterford and Limerick respectively. Illustrating how good early-season performances can’t be taken as an absolute guide, Cork didn’t make it beyond the All-Ireland quarter-finals in any of those seasons, with the teams at various stages of development.
So, nobody will get carried away with a victory but it wouldn’t be rejected outright, either. Topping the group would provide an extra match, which might be useful ahead of the league, but whatever happens, Limerick will be back on Leeside – Páirc Uí Chaoimh this time – for the national league opener on Saturday, February 4.
This is a warm-up for that, but of course when that rolls around we’re told that it is ultimately a testbed for what lies beyond in the championship. It’s true, of course, but by wishing our lives away, we might miss what could be an interesting journey.