The new provincial hurling championships have a strong advocate in Cork hurling captain Seamus Harnedy, even if he admits now that he was “sceptical enough beforehand” last year.
Cork won a hard-fought Munster title last season, and Harnedy sketches the attractions of the competition for its main participants.
“The easiest way to put it is that players love playing matches.
“With the old format you could be training flat out for four months just for one day, and if you didn’t put your best foot forward on that particular day then you could find yourself in the qualifiers with a very tough away draw, for instance.
“I definitely commend the new format, I think players love it. I’m not so sure from the managers’ viewpoint, they mightn’t love it as much, and certainly the four games in five weeks last year was very tough in terms of recovery, don’t get me wrong.
“But it was also something we all relished, every player loves the big occasion and playing in big games. And the supporters really came on board last year I thought, particularly in Cork.
“I was like a lot of other people last year, sceptical enough beforehand, and I woke up stiff and sore a few Monday mornings having to get myself right and face into another game a few days later, but I wouldn’t change it.
Having struggled with his fitness earlier in the year — “I had a bit of a back injury so I’m getting back to full health, but happy out now” — Harnedy is happy the system has been tweaked to give teams a weekend off in the middle of the championship: “I think the GAA have done the right thing this year by giving a bit of a break in the middle.
“It’s unbelievable, you have no excuses not to get into the All-Ireland series. You’ve had four chances to get through so you have to hold your hand up if you don’t take it. No excuses.
“Last year I didn’t know what to expect but I think in retrospect it was a wonderful success, and I think the one criticism hanging over the championship has been rectified in the sense that that break has been brought in for this year.”
Harnedy sees the number of games as vital for promoting hurling on Leeside: “Having so many games — and games in Cork — means it’s an ideal opportunity for kids to come down to Páirc Uí Chaoimh a couple of times to see their favourite hurlers.
“It’s a great way for people to see top class hurling in the flesh.”
And top class panels. Limerick’s strength in depth was crucial to their All-Ireland success last year, and Cork have sought to match that depth for 2019.
“Absolutely, and John (Meyler, Cork manager) emphasised that after last year’s championship and in the league, the need to blood some new players, and thankfully he’s done that.
“With the Fitzgibbon Cup going on alongside the league campaign there was an opportunity for him to bring back a couple of experienced players who sat out a year or two.
“There’ll be no championship won with just the 15 players. Every game could be a 20-man game, and John’s really worked on that.”
Meyler has also brought in former All Black Doug Howlett as a performance adviser.
“If you can’t learn something from someone like Doug Howlett then you’re fooling yourself. Having someone like him to talk to in terms of high performance is a huge benefit.”
They’ll need it all facing Tipperary tomorrow.
“Tipperary could easily have been in the top three last year, absolutely,” says Harnedy.
“Late on in Thurles we had to be thankful to Anthony Nash for a fantastic save he made to keep us going.
“Against Limerick in Páirc Uí Chaoimh again, we were very lucky to come out with a draw, so you can see how tight the margins are, how games turn on one or two small things.
“Luckily we were on the right side of those margins last year, but we have it all to do again this year. And we’re under no illusions about how hard it’s going to be to replicate that. Every team is incredibly strong, Tipperary and Waterford didn’t get through last year yet Waterford were in the league final this year, which shows how strong they are.
“It’s a minefield, and something we have to manage well.”