WHILE Cork will look to finish the group stage of Division 1 of the Allianz Hurling League with a 100 percent record on Sunday, it could be argued that the match in Nowlan Park is of greater importance to the Rebels than the one in Cusack Park.
Whatever happens when Cork face Clare in Ennis (1.45pm), they are guaranteed top spot in Group A as a result of the Banner’s defeat to Galway last weekend. Limerick are currently in second place, two points behind Cork, but even if the All-Ireland champions beat Wexford and Cork lose, Pat Ryan’s side would have the head-to-head advantage on the Shannonsiders, having beaten them in their opening game last month.
Clare need to win to have a chance – but they also need Galway to beat Westmeath. If Clare win and Limerick lose, the pair would be tied on six points but Limerick would have the head-to-head on Clare; however, if Clare, Limerick and Galway were all level, then scoring difference would come into play and Brian Lohan’s team’s six-goal haul against Wexford could be valuable.
All of that is somewhat immaterial to Cork, who know that they will face the team finishing second in Group B, which has already been won by Tipperary. The battle for the runners-up spot is effectively a straight shootout between Kilkenny (currently on six points) and Waterford (five), though a draw would be sufficient for the Cats.
Were that to happen, then – despite the placings – Cork would be away to Derek Lyng’s men in the last four as the counties have a home-and-away arrangement. The opposite happened last year, as Cork finished second in Group A and Kilkenny topped Group B, but the semi took place in Páirc Uí Chaoimh with Cork winning.
Cork’s immediate focus on Sunday will be on trying to avoid a slow start – of their four games to date, only against Westmeath did they lead at half-time, but still have managed to amass maximum points.
Ryan has been impressed with how players have responded to the challenge of falling behind, but trying to avoid it is the objective.
“Obviously, when you have a lot of new players, who don’t have as much experience, they might be a bit jittery, not wanting to make mistakes,” he says.
“When we’ve gone behind, fellas have let off the shackles and breathed out rather than playing with your breath in.
“They’ve started hurling from the front and attacking the ball and that’s when we’ve played our best hurling. It’s just trying to get that mentality into fellas, to tear into it from day one.
“You’re always better winning games that are tight – it reminds you that you still have a lot to work on, whereas if you’re winning games by ten or 12 points, you’re not aware of the faults as much.
“We’re finding out plenty about lads and the effort is great from them at the moment.”
With the luxury of being qualified, Cork are likely to rotate and give game-time to players who have not had much so far.
“We’ve lads coming back from injuries,” Ryan says, “this weekend might come too early for some of them but we’d hope to have a few of them on the panel.
“It’s an opportunity to give fellas starts and a good few guys have played a lot of games in a row so maybe it’s time to give them a break.
“You’re trying to keep fellas fresh as you go through it. We’re six weeks out from the championship, so we need to keep building towards that.”
There is also a consideration with regard to players involved with the U20 team, as their championship campaign begins at home to Waterford on Wednesday, March 29.
“Obviously, we’ve three fellas – Eoin Downey, Ben Cunningham and Colin Walsh – who are on our panel at the moment and they’re playing U20s,” Ryan says.
“We have to take that into consideration with regard to what we’re doing with them. They’ve a very hectic schedule in April with games on Wednesdays so it’s a situation that has to be managed between myself and Ben.
“It’s about doing what’s best for the players. They’re playing Kilkenny this weekend, their last game before championship, and we’re playing Clare so we’ll figure out what’s best for the lads.”