The lack of experience on the Cork bench is “nobody’s fault”, according to Tom Kenny, who believes an All-Ireland U21 title in the coming weeks would set up Cork perfectly for a crack at senior glory in 2019.
Cork’s reinforcements contributed just one point at the end of Sunday’s extra-time All-Ireland semi-final classic, whereas four of Limerick’s reserves — Shane Dowling, Barry Nash, Pat Ryan and David Reidy — notched 2-6. Another replacement, Peter Casey, may not have written his name onto the Treaty scoresheet, but did plenty elsewhere to merit mention.
Limerick manager John Kiely used seven subs over the 90-plus minutes, two more than John Meyler, who opted instead to put back in Shane Kingston and Daniel Kearney. In terms of panel depth, the contrast was stark.
Of the Cork subs introduced, three — Robbie O’Flynn, Tim O’Mahony and Jack O’Connor — are still U21, as are Ger Collins and Billy Hennessy, both of whom were on the bench at Croke Park.
David Griffin, another U21, is part of the extended panel.
Kenny, midfield on Cork’s All-Ireland winning teams in 2004 and ’05, says there needs to be patience to allow these young players prosper and grow on the senior stage.
Cork are a young team. We just didn’t have the experience on the bench and that’s nobody’s fault,” insisted Kenny.
“The younger lads will have gained experience by being on the bench and seeing what happened, seeing the level of commitment on the field that was needed. That’ll stand to them in the league and Munster round-robin next. It is a case of just waiting.
“Hopefully, over the winter, they’ll get another pre-season under their belt. They’ll hopefully then be a bit stronger and more physically able for the game.
In 12 months time, hopefully, we’ll be talking about someone who came off the bench to guide Cork to a final. That will be as a result of bearing witness to a great game on Sunday and working through the winter, spring and into summer next year.
“I don’t want to apportion blame to the management for the changes they made. They made changes on the line in good faith. Sometimes, they happen. Sometimes, they don’t.
“Shane Dowling alluded to that. He has come off the bench before and it didn’t happen. When you come off the bench and it comes right for you, you feel invincible and you think anything will go your way. That is how it proved for Limerick.”
The aforementioned U21s, as well as senior starters Mark Coleman, Darragh Fitzgibbon, and Shane Kingston, return inside the whitewash this Saturday as they continue the county’s bid for a first All-Ireland U21 crown in 20 years.
Eleven of Limerick’s starting team on Sunday have at least one All-Ireland U21 medal in their back pocket.
Tom Morrissey and Aaron Gillane have mentioned several times this year the worth of the 2015 and 2017 U21 wins in steeling them for life at senior level. Kenny is hopeful an U21 title for Cork would have the same effect heading into 2019.
“Winning an U21 is very important. A lot of the Limerick lads have come up together winning. Winning breeds a kind of familiarity and camaraderie with each other. You celebrate successes together, strike up new friendships.
“If the U21s can get that win and bring that feeling into the senior set-up, everyone else can feed off that. You know then at the end of 2018 that Cork are All-Ireland U21 champions, were there or thereabouts in the senior. You can look forward to 2019 and say, these guys are ready to make that next step. Winning an U21 will give them that belief, that sense of knowing deep down they can take that step.”
Kenny added: “It is perfect for those players to have this All-Ireland U21 semi-final. They will want to win an U21, will want to prove that what happened last week was disappointing and, maybe, should not have happened, and say, we can win a game to get Cork to an All-Ireland final. If they do that, that’ll wipe the slate clean for those players.
The failure to protect a six-point lead with six minutes of normal time remaining was massively disappointing for Cork, but doesn’t devalue their Munster success. “In the dark winter months, they’ll come to reflect on a fantastic Munster campaign. Next year, they’ll want to take that extra step and get to a final. Whether that is as Munster champions or coming third in the group, as Limerick did, then so be it.
“They’ll learn from Sunday in terms of how to see out a game. Sport can be cruel and sometimes, unfortunately, you have to learn the hard way. Cork did on Sunday.”