IN Páirc Uí Chaoimh last Saturday, the Cork hurlers played an A versus B game to try and settle on their team for Sunday’s opening Munster championship match against Waterford.
At a mini training camp in Johnstown House in Enfield the previous weekend, Pat Ryan and his management used the two days to try and get a clearer picture of what that starting team may be. Picking that first 15 has been a complex process because the Cork side named has never played together after their league campaign was contaminated by a chronic injury list.
That opened the door for other players to step in and, while some have, Ryan and his management still couldn’t discard so much of that experience on the back of those players not being able to physically play league games during the spring.
Aside from match fitness, is that a big issue, especially when these players have been playing and training together for a long time? That does allay some concerns but, despite Ryan having worked with so many of these players in the past, the volume of injuries has been disruptive for a new management still trying to get to know all of these players.
With culture extending far beyond the field, assessing how hard injured players have worked would have formed a central part of Ryan’s assessment policy.
How badly did some of those injured and experienced players want it? How hard were they willing to push in training, both on and off the field, to get back? How much did the players in possession of a jersey during the league do to keep that jersey for the championship?
Despite the need for experience and the team having an experienced look about it, management will have framed their selection around the unseen work done on and off the field as much as what these players have done in the past.
Nobody will ever question Cork’s class and hurling ability but has Ryan and the management been able to bring that edge that Cork have lacked for too long?
The biggest plus of the league was Cork’s ability to win tight matches down the home straight, particularly against Limerick and Wexford. Cork’s draw with Clare was just as impressive, especially when Cork had already qualified for a league semi-final and the match appeared to have gone from them before Conor Lehane and Conor Cahalane hit injury time points.
The old failings returned for the league semi-final against Kilkenny but Cork trained hard on the Friday night beforehand. That may just be a handy excuse but everything about the performance against Kilkenny smacked of a team that didn’t want to meet Limerick in a final and risk the fallout that damaged Cork’s confidence early in last year’s championship.
The counterargument to that theory is that Cork could have done with reaching a league final, irrespective of what the result might have been, in order to get game-time into players just coming back from injury at that time.
Whatever Cork may or may not have decided to do, all that matters now is being right for Sunday against a Waterford team that already has a tough championship match under their belts. And if Waterford perform as well as they played against Limerick, they will rattle this Cork team.
Having played that first championship game is an advantage. Waterford matched up to Limerick as well as any team has in recent years but they still didn’t win a match they should have, which can ask as many questions as provide answers now. How will that loss have taken out of Waterford, mentally as much as physically, especially when they had Limerick on the rack?
Will it be as poor again? Four of Waterford’s starting forwards failed to score, but a couple of those players, especially Mikey Kiely, will feel they can get far more change out of this Cork defence.
One of the biggest surprises from last Sunday was that Waterford didn’t throw the tactical curveball that everyone was expecting them to fire at Limerick. So is Davy Fitzgerald keeping that trick for Cork now?
If Cork have any card up their sleeve, they’ll surely use it around who they play centre-forward in de Búrca’s absence. After that, they’ll match up Niall O’Leary on Dessie Hutchinson and hope that the players who played so little during the league can get up to speed as quickly as possible.
There are a huge amount of imponderables for Cork heading into this match but the biggest positive is that they are meeting Waterford in that first game, in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
Limerick outnumbered the Waterford support around 5-1 last Sunday in Thurles so the Cork support should dwarf the Waterford support again now.
The Cork supporters will need to be loud but Ryan has always believed that is a two-way transaction too in that the players need to give the supporters something to shout about.
If they do, home advantage should swing a Cork victory.