Two journeys come to an end tomorrow evening in Limerick. Players from either side will, of course, go on to senior level in the years ahead, but for the Cork and Tipperary panels as a whole, these respective groups will never again share the same dressing-room.
It was a fact which struck Cork U20 football captain Peter O’Driscoll on the bus up to Portlaoise for their All-Ireland final clash with Dublin and one which he made sure to emphasise before they took to the field on that memorable afternoon at O’Moore Park.
His hurling counterpart James Keating is keenly aware that tomorrow is the final occasion this Cork team will go into battle together, and so important to them before they go their separate ways is rectifying the sense of unfinished business which hangs over this group.
Two years ago, they came up short to Galway in the All-Ireland minor decider, having at one point in proceedings led by six. It was something of a similar tale in last month’s Munster U20 final against tomorrow’s opponents. Nearly, but never quite, has been their story of woe on the biggest days.
“There are a lot of lads in this panel that have been together since we were 14. We know each other so well at this stage. It would be just so unreal to finish on a high with these guys. Whatever it takes to get over the line, I don’t care,” said Cork captain Keating.
“The minor final two years ago was heartbreaking. Our first defeat of the year and it was in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day. Then in the Munster final last month, we went from the biggest high to the biggest low in about 30 seconds. It was such a high when Brian Turnbull got the point to put us two up with maybe a minute to go. We thought we had it and so it was gutting when the Tipp goal went in.”
The Cork full-back is relishing a second crack at Liam Cahill’s Premier charges. No more than they have unfinished business in terms of securing an All-Ireland, so too do they have with Tipperary.
“We were hoping to see them again after that last-minute goal in the Munster final.
“We’ve a few things to straighten out, hopefully. It was just important after the Munster final not to feel sorry for ourselves. We had only 10 days to prepare for Kilkenny. That was never going to be easy. Thankfully, we got over the line.
“Tipperary are going to be fancied after getting eight goals in their semi-final. But we’ve nothing to fear. We don’t fear Tipperary going in. We can’t wait to get a crack off them. It was just the way the ball broke to Jake [Morris] the last time. It could just have easily broken to one of our lads. They obviously had the luck on the night. Hopefully, we’ve the bit of luck next week.
Tomorrow, explained Keating, is the latest instalment in a healthy rivalry which has been raging for four years.
“It started at U16 level in a tournament below in Tipperary. We beat them by two points in the semi-final. Then, obviously, there was the Munster minor semi-final drawn game in Thurles and the replay on the Monday night in Páirc Uí Rinn when there was a crowd of over 8,000.
“I think there could be more than 10,000 or 12,000 at the final. After the Munster final, I think everyone will want to go to it. Hopefully, there will be a massive Cork following. For the Cork U20 footballers, the crowd made an awful difference. That Cork roar, you can’t beat it. It really drives you on the pitch.
“We stayed on for the U20 football final after our semi-final. I went to school with full-forward Cathal O’Mahony. I was delighted to see him lift the All-Ireland cup. To have what they had would be unreal.”
Neither Kildorrery clubman Keating, nor any of his teammates, were born when last Cork tasted All-Ireland U21 glory back in 1998. Factor in the 14 and 18-year droughts at senior and minor level and it quickly becomes apparent that Cork hurling could do with a bit of All-Ireland tin.
“If we can be the bunch to bring back the All-Ireland, we’ll be over the moon because it is badly needed in Cork, in fairness.”