This time last year, Cork played host to the Déise in the first round of the Munster U21 hurling championship. As U21 teams go, this was no run of the mill Waterford side. Backboning Derek Lyons’ team were seven members of Derek McGrath’s senior squad, including Austin Gleeson, Tadhg de Búrca, Colin Dunford, Shane Bennett and Patrick Curran.
The visitors won at a canter, stretching out to nine-years Cork’s wait for a Munster title at this grade. If it stretches to 10 this evening, there won’t be too many calling for a root and branch review of underage structures in the county on their way out of Páirc Uí Rinn. Limerick, you see, much like Waterford in 2015, are no run of the mill U21 team.
John Kiely’s starting team features 10 of the side which started last September’s 16-point All-Ireland final annihilation of Wexford. Moreover, Andrew La Touche Cosgrave and Peter Casey, named at left half-back and left corner-forward respectively, were introduced as subs during that game. Cian Lynch and Richie English, meanwhile, both started Limerick’s opening senior championship fixture of the summer, with centre-forward Tom Morrissey introduced off the bench in that defeat to Tipperary earlier this month.
Cork manager Damian Irwin, now in his second year at the helm, appreciates the scale of the task facing his side. “You want a big challenge, well this is a big challenge. If you are in sport for big challenges, you are in sport for a game like this,” said Irwin of drawing the reigning All-Ireland champions.
“There are five teams in Munster so whoever you get is going to be a tough challenge. For Cork or Limerick, this is going to be a very tough Munster campaign because they are going to have to beat three very good teams to win Munster.”
Irwin, similar to his Limerick counterpart, is able to call on a significant chunk of last year’s group. From the team named for this evening’s fixture, nine started against Waterford 12 months ago.
Goalkeeper Patrick Collins — who will captain the side — full-back Sean O’Donoghue and midfielder Niall Cashman were all on the bench during the seniors defeat to Tipperary last month, while Shane Kingston, David Griffin, Mark Coleman and Tim O’Mahony are graduates of the 2015 minor class.
“There is continuity there,” said Irwin of the large volume of players involved from last year’s campaign. “It is not a hindrance because you get to know guys well in one season, but you get to know them even better the second season. We know more about them than we would have had in the first season. Kevin O’Neill from Watergrasshill, who was our centre-forward and was part of last year’s team, did his cruciate the weekend before last playing with his club. Kevin would have been lining out with us on Tuesday. We had a good year injury-wise up to that.
“It was tough on the player. He is a fantastically wholehearted player. He is a great lad around the panel, a great lad around the team. He is the type of player who would give everything every day. He is a huge loss.”
The Cork U21’s kick-start what is a massive week for Cork hurling with the county’s minor, U21 and senior sides involved in knockout fixtures across the space of five days.
“We can’t look at Cork hurling as a whole. We aren’t looking at Cork hurling as a whole. We are not looking at any other team but our own and preparing them as best we can. I know the Cork hurling public are talking about this, but each of those teams has to focus on their own plans and figure out their own team.”
All three do have home advantage. A plus, surely?
“The crowd is really important. If the team is doing things on the field, they get the crowd behind them, they get the crowd excited and animated. Then it becomes a very powerful thing; the team and the crowd are driving on together. I am sure we will get a good crowd in because Cork supporters are very good to follow their teams. I know they are well aware of the three hurling fixtures.
“The commitment from our lads has been excellent. They are a very spirited bunch. Hopefully, we can get a performance.”