THE opening round of Munster Hurling Championship was full of surprises, as it so often is.
The reigning All-Ireland champions held out for a two-point win over a Waterford side who many predicted to finish bottom of the group, while an eight-goal thriller played out in Ennis saw last season’s All-Ireland semi-finalists well beaten by Tipperary.
The unpredictability of Munster hurling and the round-robin system is what gives the competition its lore.
The Treaty are quite obviously the team to beat, but any of the other four Munster sides could give them a run for their money, as Waterford proved on Sunday.
Cork, who hose the Déise on Sunday in the Páirc, could finish fifth as easily as they could finish second, but it’s these points that will be the difference-maker for the Rebels.
It goes without saying that you need to be confident if you want to be successful at this level, but it’s hard to imagine that Cork’s woes against Limerick in recent years haven’t taken a toll on the Rebels mentally. The last time Cork beat Limerick in a championship game was in 2019.
It’s imperative that this Cork team put that behind them, and face Limerick with confidence.
That’s always going to be a psychological factor for Ryan’s men when they head to TUS Gaelic Grounds in a month, and a massive blow at the tail end of the Munster Championship could dampen morale right before the All-Ireland series, assuming Cork have qualified.
But Cork’s draw for the Munster Championship is certainly favourable. Waterford will be coming off the back of a deflating loss to Limerick, while the Rebels will be rejuvenated and ready for action, hopefully with many of their previous injury absentees back in the team.
The Déise had an abysmal league campaign – only beating Antrim and Laois. Waterford were favourites for this fixture last year and still fell short at home. A defeat this weekend to Cork puts serious pressure on Fitzgerald’s men to make the All-Ireland series.
There is absolutely no question regarding the talent in this Cork squad. They’re a fast and skilful side, with depth that has been put to the test in the league this year, but they’ve got to back themselves and play with conviction.
Pat Ryan’s arrival comes at a time where Cork’s experienced players still have plenty to offer, but simultaneously while the county’s young stars have begun to flourish. Captain Sean O’Donoghue had a strong Munster League campaign, and if fit for the opener against Waterford, will no doubt be a huge player in Ryan’s full-back line.
Midleton’s Conor Lehane has undergone a resurgence with the Cork team, and he has excelled for the past two seasons. His proficiency and experience were huge factors in Cork’s victory over Galway in the league, as he bagged 2-3 from play. Ryan will need him to step up this weekend.
While things didn’t go Cork’s way in Nowlan Park, his impact from the bench was certainly noticed.
Harnedy also showed his strength in the league this year, scoring 1-3 from play against Clare before injury put an end to his league.
The senior members of this Cork team need to step up in the Munster Championship this year if they are to have any shot at silverware come July.
One of Cork’s biggest issues in 2022 was their failure to consistently play it out from the back under Kieran Kingston. Individual errors against Limerick, Clare and Galway proved costly, and ultimately led to their departure in the quarter-final.
Patrick Collins must be careful with his puck-outs. It’s one thing to turn over possession but to put your backs in dangerous situations is another. As Clare found out last weekend, it’s very hard to come back after conceding cheap goals.
Tommy O’Connell’s breakthrough in Mark Coleman’s absence has added a new dynamic to this Cork side. His pace, control and agility give Ryan the opportunity to play a sweeper, and when trialled, it has proved successful.
O’Connell was excellent against Wexford and Westmeath, and his ability to float around in defence and provide support for the other five backs is going to be a game-changer for Ryan during the Munster Championship.