WHEN Pat Ryan and his management named their starting team for the Westmeath game two weeks ago, it was inevitable that there would be wholesale changes from the win against Galway seven days earlier.
There were eight alterations in total with Ryan giving league debuts to Ben Cunningham and Ethan Twomey, while there were also first starts this season for Daire O’Leary and Ger Millerick.
Playing Westmeath after having won the opening two games against Limerick and Galway gave Ryan more licence to experiment but he and his management have been doing that from the start of the campaign.
Ryan set out his stall from the opening game against Limerick when handing first league starts to Conor O’Callaghan, Eoin Downey, Brian O’Sullivan and Cormac Beausang, while Brian Hayes also featured in the league for the first time.
Ryan has continued to give players their opportunity but, while the manager had to look at new players, the level of experimentation was also a product of necessity through injury and unavailability with so many involved in the Fitzgibbon Cup.
So while Cork appear to be in a good place, it is difficult to gauge where they are really at considering how little Ryan has seen of some of his main players.
Of course, there will be debutants come the championship but this is not 1999 anymore when Jimmy Barry-Murphy rolled the dice in the Munster semi-final against Waterford and handed debuts to six U21s.
That was a different time but it’s not even 2017 anymore either when Kieran Kingston handed starting debuts to five young players – Shane Kingston, Darragh Fitzgibbon, Mark Coleman, Colm Spillane and Luke Meade – for Cork’s opening Munster championship match against Tipperary that season.
Five debutants at once was more than Cork had dared to pick since that day in 1999. Back then though, those young players – Donal Óg Cusack, Mickey O’Connell, Timmy McCarthy, Ben O’Connor, Wayne Sherlock and Neil Ronan – had emerged after glorious underage careers, something Kingston, Coleman, Fitzgibbon, Meade and Spillane hadn’t enjoyed.
A lot of the players Ryan has at his disposal now have two All-Ireland U20 medals, just like the cohort in 1999 had two All-Ireland U21 medals. Yet it is a vastly different time now where, unlike two decades ago, young players need time to establish themselves and gradually develop along the S&C ladder.
Ryan needs to build around the framework of last year’s team, but the majority of those pillars have been absent throughout most of the league. It’s still only March but some of those players, including Coleman and Alan Connolly are long-term absentees, while a host more have been restricted to limited training – and minimal match time – since the campaign began.
Of the 20 players which featured in last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final against Galway, 13 have played little or no league games to date; Coleman, Connolly, Fitzgibbon, Millerick, Tim O’Mahony, Seamus Harnedy, Robert Downey, Alan Cadogan, Robbie O’Flynn, Seán O’Donoghue, Patrick Horgan, Jack O’Connor, Damian Cahalane.
Eight of that group haven’t played any league matches while Horgan and Cahalane played one full game, with O’Donoghue and Millerick only appearing for 30 and 35 minutes respectively. O’Flynn was brilliant for 63 minutes against Limerick before picking up a serious ankle injury.
A couple of those players will see game-time in Cork’s last two league matches against Wexford and Clare but a raft of the others won’t unless Cork make the league semi-finals.
In those circumstances, it is important that Cork make it to the last four of the league. They are in good shape to do so but, even if they do win a fourth successive game on Sunday against Wexford, Cork may still need to beat Clare in their final match to guarantee qualification.
Clare may not want to show their full hand in that game but, while Cork may not want to either, Cork won’t have the same luxury because getting at least one more game is a must for Cork if Ryan is to start settling on his championship team sooner rather than later.
Ryan hinted at as much after the win against Westmeath. “We have started 29/30 players in three league matches,” he said. “After the Wexford and Clare games, we will get more settled.”
They’ll have to but that process will only become more defined when Ryan sees the players in action that he hasn’t been able to assess in recent weeks.
Releasing the players back to their clubs last weekend for their first league game was largely about giving the squad a break from the inter-county set-up. But it was also surely designed around getting game-time into some of the recovering players in a less stressful and demanding environment.
Cork are in a good place. New players have stepped up. Peripheral players have grabbed their opportunity. The team will get stronger once more established players return.
Yet, while a lot of teams already know – or have a clear idea of - their championship starting team by this stage, Cork are still a long way from deciding what their first 15 will be for Waterford on April 30.