THAT Colm O’Rourke’s first fully competitive match as Meath manager has something of a scriptwriter’s feel to it, especially given the man in the opposite dugout.
Colm O’Rourke and Cork boss John Cleary played on respective county teams that made significant breakthroughs for the respective counties and, in doing so, they set a benchmark by which every subsequent side would be measured.
As they clash in the Allianz Football League Division 2 opener in Páirc Uí Chaoimh tomorrow, there will no doubt be some chat centred around the great clashes between the Royals and the Rebels in three All-Ireland finals in four years from 1987-90 (with a replay in 1988 bringing the number of games to four). However, the focus has to be on the present and future, restoring the counties to where they feel they ‘should’ be.
After 1990, Cork were waiting two decades for another All-Ireland – also part of a run of three finals in four years – and, while Meath did win two more titles under Seán Boylan as their team evolved, in 1996 and 1999, the Royals have found it difficult to made significant progress, even allowing for a couple of All-Ireland semi-final appearances.
The relentless meritocracy that is sport means that ‘should’ is at best an abstract concept, at worst a useless one that ultimately stands in the way of progress as it prevents a proper and complete self-analysis. Ultimately, barring a complete miscarriage of justice, you are where you belong and any change to that state must come from within.
For Cork and Meath – with one provincial championship between them since 2010 – that means finding themselves in Division 2, trying to break back into the elite. Given that there are a few sharks in the tank this year, the battle for promotion is likely to be a competitive one and, in that regard, maintaining a good home record is essential. Conversely, any victories that can be gleaned on the road take on an extra significance.
When Conor Counihan was in charge, there was always a strong focus on picking up points in Páirc Uí Chaoimh or Páirc Uí Rinn as it laid a strong foundation. During his time in charge, Cork played 20 home league games and won 16 – one of the defeats was a dead rubber against Mayo in 2010 just before the counties met in the final, while two were in his last year, 2013, when Cork failed to make the knockout stages.
Outside of that, making Leeside a fortress converted into a Division 2 win in 2009 and then three Division 1 titles on the trot.
Allied to the need to do well at home, there is the need for a strong start so as to avoid being left with ground to make up and to that end Cork have put good building blocks in place with victory in the McGrath Cup.
By and large, Cork played impressively in seeing off Kerry at home and Clare away in the group stages before overcoming Limerick in the final in Mallow last Friday week. There was an incisiveness to Cork’s play and a hunger among the players, but there is a step up from the pre-season competition to the Allianz Football League and it’s easy to see why Cleary was eager not to get carried away.
“It was a good pre-season competition, good preparation for the league,” he said after the 0-19 to 2-7 win.
“In a lot of occasions, we were trying some new things and the other teams were doing the same but still, this team needed to get a couple of wins under their belt, but now we are down to the business end of things.”
After the opener, Cork are away to Kildare on Sunday, February 12 before Dublin come to Páirc Uí Chaoimh a week later, so it’s not as if there’s a handy stretch of games in which to find form.
Given that the worst-case scenario of relegation could mean exclusion from the All-Ireland SFC, Cork need to hit the ground running.