Unbeaten record is great but Cork hurlers have rarely gotten out of second gear

Pat Ryan's Rebels face Kilkenny in the league semi-final this weekend but supporters won't be carried away with the league
Unbeaten record is great but Cork hurlers have rarely gotten out of second gear

John Conlon of Clare is tackled by Dáire O’Leary of Cork. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

CORK hurling bainisteoir Pat Ryan is fast approaching Catch 22 territory – where injuries allow you to build a squad, yet if the injuries do not actually clear up, you never have that squad.

There was not too much concern with the health of the Cork panel when Cork dispatched Henry Shefflin’s Galway up in Salthill in Round 2 of the league by 3-22 to 4-24 with what was effectively a second-string line-up.

Players all over the pitch put their hands up for championship consideration that day. The fact that the likes of Patrick Horgan, Seamus Harnedy, Robbie O’Flynn, Jack O’Connor, Alan Connolly, Darragh Fitzgibbon, Sean O’Donoghue, Mark Coleman, Damian Cahalane, Niall O’Leary, Tim O’Mahony and Robert Downey were all unavailable did not seem to matter much at the time.

In fact, it was a bonus. To win without that lot was a sure sign of the robust health of the Cork panel. That was well over a month ago now though, and a lot of that absent list remain AWOL, with a lot of them having played little or no gametime in the league.

The thinking had been, all along, that most of that list of players would come back in for the championship opener against Waterford on April 30th, but we’re fast approaching the stage where that notion no longer fits.

Before Cork’s last league game proper against Clare, semi-final qualification had already been achieved. The league semi and final might well be needed to get some game time into a few of that returning crew.

To have qualified for the last four with a 100% record, with a game to spare, would suggest that Cork, minus all these players, are flying, but in reality bar that game against Galway and the second half against Limerick in Round 1 at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, they have rarely got out of second gear.

The wins over Westmeath and Wexford would not have had any opposition managers losing any sleep. That may be painted as a negative in some quarters, but if you are more of a glass-half-full kind of person then it can be the opposite.

Winning is a habit, and right now this young Cork panel have it. That can be no bad thing.

This can only be a positive, though, if Cork prove that they have gears three, four and five later in the year.

That is something that we simply do not know at this juncture. Cork are like the young novice hurdler galloping down the hill at Cheltenham toward the second last, still on the bridle, and we do not know if it will pick up when it faces into the long rise to the finish line, once it rounds the bend.


With the injury list Cork may end up having to play the long game with the panel, and bring the experienced players back in dribs and drabs.

This will mean trusting the younger players in big games, but one senses that Pat Ryan will have no problem with that. Ryan has demonstrated, to date, that he is comfortable giving young players opportunities if they are considered the ‘next man up’.

Wexford’s Liam Óg McGovern goes by Cork’s Niall O’Leary and Eoin Downey. Picture: INPHO/Ken Sutton
Wexford’s Liam Óg McGovern goes by Cork’s Niall O’Leary and Eoin Downey. Picture: INPHO/Ken Sutton

He won two U20 All-Irelands with a lot of these players so there is trust there, from both sides. The reality will probably be that the team that starts against Waterford on April 30 will be significantly different to the one that finishes up against Limerick in the final game of the Munster round-robin on May 28.

Young players are never really trusted with the public until they survive the white-hot heat of championship fare.

You see it every year, where an inexperienced player gets league time, but the hurlers on the ditch proclaim that player to ‘not be ready’. 70 minutes of championship action later and that same player is accepted.

It just takes one game for these young players to join the ‘accepted club’. This will happen again this year, and with Cork it is likely to happen to four or five players and by the end of the campaign they will be considered mainstays in the team, or squad at least.

Whether that be Eoin Downey at full-back, Brian Roche at midfield or Padraig Power in at 14, or whoever, remains to be seen, but we will certainly see new faces in championship action for Cork this year.

The Catch-22 has pretty much guaranteed it.

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