The visitors face a Kerry team which required two injury-time points to see off Limerick in the semi-final and who were very nearly caught in the quarter-final but for a last-ditch tackle to take the ball off the toe of Tipperary’s Colm O’Shaughnessy as he shot for goal.
Moreover, this is a Kerry side starting 11 players with at least one minor All-Ireland medal in the back pocket.
Cork, by way of stark contrast, strolled into the final without as much as a single glance over the shoulder. Clare were put away with 15 points to spare, while Waterford failed to register a single score until the 49th minute.
Not exactly ideal prep for a clash with Jack O’Connor’s latest crop.
“We didn’t learn a whole pile from the Waterford game, but you have to play what is in front of you. That is hardly our fault,” remarked Hayes of their 25-point semi-final victory.
“We played well enough not to give Waterford a chance. The good side of it is we had to travel and we are travelling again this Thursday, so these lads are used to being on the road.
“But definitely, the game against Kerry will be a different kettle of fish. You have at least 10 All-Ireland medallists from the last two years playing. So, it is going to be a different standard.”
He added: “We have had tough games over the last two years. A lot of our fellas would have been on the panel last year. We had a game against Kerry, a game against Tipperary and a game against Limerick. They were all hard games. The lads are used to tough games, it is just that this Kerry game will be our first tough game this year.
“These are the games the lads want to be playing in; a Munster final against Kerry. They have to be up for it, It is up to our guys to get tuned in and ready.”
Seven members of this Cork team were present when the Rebels beat Kerry in last year’s Munster U21 semi-final at Páirc Uí Rinn. The 1-12 to 1-9 victory marked Cork’s fifth consecutive win over the Kingdom at this age group, but it is not a statistic entertained by Hayes. Instead, the Cork boss points to the three most recent Munster minor championships, all three of which have been won by Kerry, the latter two ending in All-Ireland glory.
“At the end of the day, football [in Munster] is normally Cork v Kerry and you are going to play Kerry at some stage along the line. We haven’t won one of the last three minors so we are just hoping that lads have improved over the last three years to make us a formidable case on Thursday. And we will need to be if we are going to beat Kerry. It goes without saying that anybody who plays football with Cork wants to face Kerry. They know what is involved. They are the team to beat in Munster.
“Kerry had good wins with their minor teams, had good wins with Dingle in the colleges. I think U21 is a separate grade, though. Fellas grow up. They are bigger and stronger and the potential is there to improve all the time. I think our fellas will improve.
“Brian Begley, Barry ‘Dan’ O’Sullivan, Matthew O’Flaherty and Jack Savage all played against us last year. We have an idea of what is coming our way. Obviously, with their two minor victories in the past two years, they won’t be lacking in confidence. We just have to be up for it and take them on. It is very simple.”
The Cork management were successful with their request to have last Saturday’s Carbery U21 semi-final involving Sean White (Clonakilty) and Sean O’Donovan (Ilen Rovers) postponed. It was the least they expected after the previous two weekends saw a large chunk of the panel absent from training because of club commitments.
“Kerry wouldn’t have this problem. Their U21 championship wouldn’t be at this time. They would be a lot more focused on their job than we would have been. But hopefully we are over the bad spell and can drive on.”