A debut in the Munster senior hurling championship. Ask Stephen McDonnell about the experience, because he remembers his, in 2011, like it was yesterday.
“I was on Lar Corbett and he had been hurler of the year the season before that, so you’re nervous, but once the ball is thrown in . . . you just want the ball to be thrown in, and once it is then you’re at ease. That’s what happens.
“The build-up, the constant talk, that’s what’s hard. It’s easier once the ball is thrown in, and when that happens you’ll see the younger lads come into their own.”
You can advise younger players not to waste nervous energy before the game, but the Cork defender admits that’s easier said than done: “It’s one thing saying it and another thing doing it.
“In my experience it’s hard, when you’re young, not to think about it or talk about it. Your family, relatives, friends — it’s hard not to talk about it, but you reassure them that what’s being said doesn’t really matter, one way or the other — that once the ball is thrown in, it’s all good.
“Reassuring them like that is as much as you can do as a player, but the young lads will be fine. They’ll be in the zone.
“Even with my family, I’d be at a stage where I’d stay away from anyone who wants to talk about hurling. That’s just my mentality.
“The game is there to be played, not to be talked about, so people don’t get too much out of me. If people want to ask me about hurling they have to go through my girlfriend, that’s how it is with me.”
He agrees that Cork have had a pretty positive season compared to 2016 — and he has too, staying injury-free compared to last year: “It has been (better), we were in the relegation final in 2013 and we were in the All-Ireland final that year, so we know that what happens in the league doesn’t matter.
“Of course it’s positive that we built up a bit of consistency, and we want to build on that in the championship, but it’s a whole new ball game.
“Last year I broke my elbow and was out for nearly all the season. I learned a lot from the injury and this year I’ve been lucky, I’ve had a good run of games. I’m in a good place going into the championship, compared to last year when I was sitting on the sideline watching on. But I think last year will stand to me too, that I’ll really relish it.”
McDonnell acknowledges the buzz introduced by a dozen U21s to the senior panel.
“You look at any organisation and when they bring in new faces, the older people can learn a lot from those younger people, they can bring in a great buzz, a lot of energy. A lot of stuff goes on.
"It reminds you of when you came in yourself, the older players have a chance to mentor the younger lads, but once the ball is thrown in it doesn’t matter how old you are, everyone is on the same level. In championship, there is no age.
“They (the U21s), bring an extra buzz — they’re coming in with the mentality they want a game and they want to drive on. The older players see that and drive on with them, so they feed off our experience and we feed off their energy, and we come together as a team and go forward.
"You need people at all levels — it’s the same with the Glen, we have new players, the middle ground, and the old stock, and we’re building that with Cork too.”
Tipperary, though. They might have been blitzed by Galway in the league final but McDonnell didn’t pay much attention to that game.
“That’s for management, and we trust them — they’ve been reviewing the opposition so whatever they come up with, they come up with, but as players we just worry about getting ourselves into the best shape we can.”
Cork may have edged the blue and gold in the league encounter but McDonnell puts little store in that game: “You can look at winning in the league as ‘only the league’, but I suppose it does give the younger players a game against Tipperary before playing them in the championship. That gives them a bit of comfort before the (championship) game, but it’s the league, and championship is a whole new ball game.
“Whatever happens on the day of the championship will happen regardless what happened earlier in the league. I don’t think winning in the league will do much for anyone, whether they won or we won, it’s irrelevant.”
Just as irrelevant to McDonnell is Tipp’s status as warm favourites. “That’s public perception, the supporters — outside people. As a player that means nothing, once the ball is thrown in anything can happen, regardless of what happens before the game in the league or club championships, anything like that. That’s my mindset, anyway.
“We’re aware of (Tipp’s forward power) and excited about trying to hold it. As a defender you want to be challenged, not to go through the motions. I thrive on being challenged anyway. As a man-marker in the full-back line, if the other team scores points, what’s the challenge? If they get goals then you look forward to the challenge, and the whole team is looking forward to it — and Tipp have very good forwards.”
Cork have some very good players but it’ll be a debut game for many of them. Can anything prepare a player for that experience?
“What prepares you is being willing to be uncomfortable, turning up and being there. If you turn up, tog out and you’re there when the ball is thrown in, then you’re prepared. All the lads on the team are ready for championship — they wouldn’t be there otherwise.”
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.