The Cork senior hurling championship goes up a notch this weekend, with a raft of games down for decision today and tomorrow.
Collecting the Sean Óg Murphy Cup remains a dream for hurlers all over the Rebel County, but what happens afterwards? How hard is it to retain the title or even match the hunger that got you onto the podium?
Last year’s champions Imokilly have already been in action, and captain Seamus Harnedy acknowledges they have a target on their backs.
“As county champions you’re there to be shot at, but we’re under no illusions, we’re taking it day by day. Any day a player is missing it’s an opportunity for someone else to come in.
"The panel’s very competitive but we can only field 15 - some lads are going to be aggrieved, but that’s the reality of the championship, we’re not the only team which is dealing with that.
"If you’re not up for it on a given day you could find yourself knocked out very easily. We know that well - after all, we could have gone out at the quarter-final stage last year, we needed a 64th-minute equaliser, so we know how tight the margins are.”
Midleton have learned that lesson as well. When they collected the title in 2013 many people saw a young side with the potential to dominate for years to come.
Conor Lehane gave a dazzling display that day five years ago, and he admits it’s frustrating they haven’t added to their tally.
“That’s the way it’s gone for us, and we just have to deal with it. It has been very frustrating, no doubt about that. You get a taste of it and you want more. There have been a couple of seasons we didn’t do ourselves any favours, while there were other years when we might have been slightly unlucky.
"I know that’s an easy excuse to trot out. Even last year we felt we performed pretty well compared to other years, but we didn’t get to the final, that’s just how the games went. You can’t complain, you suck it up and drive it on.”
The dominant side in club hurling in Cork until last year, when Imokilly won, was Glen Rovers, with two titles won back to back. Conor Dorris takes an optimistic view of the Blackpool club’s early exit last year.
“The appetite’s there still, definitely. Last year was disappointing, obviously, after coming off the two previous years.
“But it was also a break. We took the time to think about it and to focus and this year we’re hungrier than ever. It does refresh things to have that break.
"They’re your best friends, and you’re all together before and after training, but you’d get sick of the sight of people as well, that’s only natural. You’re hearing the same voices, seeing the same faces.
“Richie (Kelleher), Ian (Lynam) and Des (Cullinane) are all still involved as the management team, but they’ve brought in Dermot O’Callaghan, who’d have a great knowledge of the game, and Sean McGrath, whose record speaks for itself. So that’s a change, those are different voices - nothing against the three lads, but it helps them as well to have more voices.”
For all that they share, the three players have specific challenges as well. In Lehane’s case, the focus is on getting over that first-round obstacle before looking further down the line: “The first round of it is nearly more nerve-wracking because you have to make sure you get over that, otherwise nothing else works out, obviously.
"Maybe in previous years we were looking down the line a bit, which is something you can’t really afford to do. Obviously you’d have long-term goals, but if you don’t get over the first hurdle they don’t count for anything.
"It’s refreshing because you haven’t been with the lads from the club for a while, it’s a change and you’re ready to go again. I know it’s a cliche, but while you enjoy training with the county it’s nice to fall back in with the lads, you only realise how much you miss that when you rejoin them.”
Dorris points out that the Glen have some history with Ballymartle, their opponents, but adds that St Nicks’ recent win in the football championship has boosted spirits in Blackpool: “It does give a feel-good vibe to the place, say what you like but you can’t keep Nicks down, in fairness. We have a few dual players involved on both teams so that raises the confidence and drives us on as well.
As for Harnedy, there’s a drive to emulate the Imokilly side side which won senior titles in 1997 and 1998.
“My parents were very interested so I’d have seen a good few of those games, I’d remember being brought up for double-headers in the senior championship and so on.
“It inspired me to go on and represent the division - and plenty of others, too - because they were on top for so long. We’re driven to emulate them but that’s going to be tough.”
That drive also comes from one of the Imokilly management - Sean Harnedy, Seamus’s father. “Ah, it’s good to have someone involved who wants what’s best for you but who also won’t be shy about telling you when you’ve done the wrong thing as well, which has happened.
"He’s keen to win it again. We all are.”
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