Cork and Kerry meet in tomorrow’s McGrath Cup final, the traditional season-opening football competition in Munster.
What point does the McGrath Cup serve, though? This year it is being boycotted by the four counties — Clare, Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford — who all might benefit from a couple of tough outings against the southern powerhouses, while Cork’s side of the draw has thrown up two turkey shoots.
However, Ger O’Sullivan, a Cork senior football selector during Conor Counihan’s term as manager, sees the benefit of the January games. Competitive outings. Relief from the slog of training.
“We always found it useful,” said O’Sullivan.
“I’m referring there to the majority of the games we played in the competition. Some of the games were... I won’t say pointless, but very one-sided, and you’d question the value of the exercise.
“But when players are training hard during the week, it’s a good change for them to be out playing a game on the Sunday.
“I saw both games that Cork played so far in the competitions, over the last two weekends, and they were very one-sided, but they also played some good football, and the management would have had a chance to see some of the players they’ve brought in feature in a live match situation.
“I’d say their objective was to get three games under their belt, and that’s been achieved, so it’s served its purpose for them and you’d certainly expect tomorrow’s game against Kerry to be a much closer affair, and to be of more benefit.”
The appeal of trying out fringe players or newcomers in a competitive environment — but one in which league points or demotion isn’t at stake — can be attractive to managers, and to those fringe players themselves. What about the veterans who’ve slogged for five or 10 years in the jersey already, though? What’s their motivation?
“You can flip that around,” said O’Sullivan. “Fair enough, you always have players who’ve been there for a while, who are established on the starting 15 or the panel but they’re always looking over their shoulders at the same time.
“Those players in particular don’t take a competition like the McGrath Cup lightly, because they know it’s a chance for new players to impress. And I noticed that in Cork’s case at the last two games — one-sided though they were — the established players certainly didn’t look like they were relaxing.
“Every player is focused on the league at this time of the year. On getting a couple of games, at least, to show what he can do. Management are looking forward to it as well, and in particular they have an eye out for new players who might show up well early on in the league.”
The shadow of the league falls over the McGrath Cup and its fellow competitions in the other provinces, naturally enough.
As O’Sullivan puts it, nailing down a place in January can pay dividends in March and later.
“In Cork’s case they have two hard games to start, against Westmeath and Kildare, so players who impress there would be making a strong case for inclusion later in the league, and maybe even the championship.
“That’s the benefit of doing well in these pre-season tournaments. If you’re a young player or a new face and you impress and show good standards you can hold your place for the league.
“And once you’re the man in possession of the jersey then it can be hard for someone else to take it off you.”
Expect standards to be pretty high tomorrow, then.
KERRY: B Kelly (Killarney Legion); P Murphy (Rathmore), M Griffin (St Michaels/Foilmore), S Enright (Tarbert); P Crowley (Laune Rangers), J Sherwood (Firies), M Geaney (Dingle), A Maher (Duagh), D Moran (Kerins O’Rahillys); J Lyne (Killarney Legion), B Sheehan (St Marys), D Walsh (Cromane, capt); B J Keane (Kerins O’Rahillys), A Fitzgerald (Castlegregory), S O’Brien (Kenmare).
Subs: B Kealy (Kilcummin), B Maguire (Listowel Emmets), S O’Callaghan (Austin Stacks), B Shanahan (Austin Stacks), P Galvin (Finuge), A O’Mahony (Rathmore), P Geaney (Dingle), M Mangan (Milltown-Castlemaine).
CORK: K O’Halloran (Bishopstown); K Crowley (Millstreet), E Cadogan (Douglas), N Galvin (Ballincollig); J Loughrey (Mallow), T Clancy (Fermoy), K O’Driscoll (Tadgh MacCárthaigh); A Walsh (Kanturk), F Goold (Macroom); C O’Driscoll (Tadgh MacCárthaigh), M Collins (Castlehaven), A O’Sullivan (Castletownbere); D Goulding (Éire Óg), P Kerrigan (Nemo Rangers), B O’Driscoll (Nemo Rangers).
Subs: R Price (O’Donovan Rossa), J Hayes (Carbery Rangers), S Murphy (Ballydesmond), M Ó Laoire (Naomh Abán), J McLoughlin (Kanturk), D O’Connor (Ballydesmond), A Sheehan (Dohenys), M Sugrue (Bandon), C Lyons (St Finbarr’s), K O’Connor (Mallow).