The New Year is hardly a week old when the pre-league competitions take flight, offering as they do a chance for emerging talents to stake their claim at senior level and, by the time the Sigerson Cup has wrapped up in mid-February, U21 managers are left with little more than two weeks of uninterrupted prep. Hardly ideal.
For Cork manager Sean Hayes, the weather, more so than access to players, has proven most troublesome these past two months.
With no centre of excellence available to Cork’s inter-county teams and the inclement weather forcing several pitches out of action for large spells of January and February, the Cork U21 team have alternated their training sessions between Cork IT and the artificial surfaces at Trabeg and Éire Óg.
Even challenge games were forced onto artificial pitches, such was the shortage of available fields.
“The bad weather has been a major drawback,” said Hayes ahead of their Munster championship opener against Clare this evening.
“We did more than we would have liked on synthetic surfaces. We played matches in UL and they were all-weather pitches too, and, while they are fast-playing surfaces and good for handling, it is false compared to what we will be playing on at Cooraclare.”
A help to management was the relatively small turnover from last year which meant the first few weeks of the New Year weren’t spent trawling the county for fresh talent.
Four of the team which started last year’s Munster final defeat to Tipperary — Sean White, Stephen Cronin, Peter Kelleher, and Sean O’Donoghue — will line out against Clare, while corner-back Dylan Quinn, full-back Michael McSweeney, half-forward Ryan Harkin, and subs Sean O’Leary, Cian Kiely, and Cian Dorgan all saw game-time last spring.
“It did make life easier that we had a few from last year and, while it is a good and experienced panel, you are always on the look out.
“The most noticeable thing for me is the variety of clubs represented on the starting team. There are 14 clubs represented. It shows there is no one dominant force. Éire Óg have two (John Mullins at full-back and Ronan O’Toole at midfield), the rest of all have one. It wouldn’t be typical for Éire Óg to be the best represented club. Normally, it is Nemo or Castlehaven. It just shows there is a good spread of lads across the county.”
Hayes accepts that Cork enter the contest as raging hot favourites, but doesn’t expect complacency to be an issue. A lethargic effort in the opening round against Limerick this time last year that almost saw Cork dumped out has Hayes and his troops well warned.
“They have a few senior fellas, have a good few challenges played and will be very organised.
“Getting to Cooraclare in the first place will be another challenge. We are leaving at 1.30pm for a 7.30pm throw-in, which tells you how long it will take to get there. You are not going to get anything easy above in west Clare. We will need to be prepared and focused.”