For an east Cork derby bring in a north Cork legend.
The call from Midleton lit up Ben O’Connor’s phone a few months back, but the offer to coach the Magpies wasn’t perfectly timed. There was a baby on the way, O’Connor had just finished a three-year stint with Charleville’s hurlers, and he was thinking of a break from coaching.
A conversation with Midleton’s Luke O’Farrell was decisive, though.
“He gave me their side of things and even then he probably thought I was less than 50-50, but I gave it some thought and discussed it at home. I felt it wouldn’t be too often you’d be invited to train a team with that kind of tradition. I’ve enjoyed it. I got a great response from lads before the lockdown and a great response since, so hopefully we’ll kick on.”
The strangeness of the circumstances means “everyone’s in the same boat”, he feels: “The only difference is that a deep panel is going to help if you pick up a couple of injuries - and given how close the games are going to be, that’s very likely.
“In that situation, a tight panel will come against you, but as a championship, it’s probably a great way to run it, because what are players looking for all the time? Plenty of games going week on week, and now they’re getting it we’ll see how it works out. It might be the way to go in future rather than having a game in April and the next game in September.
A glittering career with Newtownshandrum and Cork gives O’Connor perspective. Take Imokilly’s recent dominance on Leeside.
“When we were going well with Newtown, Imokilly were strong, too.
“That time it had taken a while to get all the clubs rowing in together, but once they did that they were the top team for a few years, and they’re exactly the same now.
“The only positive for the other teams looking at them is that they’re short a few players for this season - they’re short Paudie (O’Sullivan) and the Fr O’Neill’s lads now, and whether the lads stepping in are as good as the lads they’re replacing, only time will tell. At the moment, with the way the games are condensed and with clubs looking for their players, it might be tougher for Imokilly, but we’ll have to see.”
It could be tougher for everyone, he adds: “An issue that might arise is the crowd, or the lack of a crowd. Every fella is training to get in a good block or a score and to get the reaction from the crowd - then to go to Pairc Ui Rinn and there’s only 200 people at it? I know there are good reasons for distancing and so on, but that seems strange to me. Never mind the fact that it’s not fair on the clubs to have to parcel out tickets to members, and people falling out because they’re not getting tickets and so on.”
A broader question: Is the standard of club hurling in Cork inferior to other counties? O’Connor’s not convinced it is.
“If you go to any county, that’s the one thing you hear - ‘ah, the quality isn’t great’ is what you get everywhere, in all counties you’ll hear people who are down on their own championship.
“For the last number of years clubs that get out of Cork haven’t been doing so well in the Munster club championship, which is probably what people are basing their opinion on.
That east Cork derby (Friday night, Páirc Uí Rinn, 7.30pm) features a couple of sides that bolster O’Connor’s argument.
“Midleton won the county in 2013, and that was a young team - but then they came up against Imokilly, and against a Glen Rovers team who were there a while, two teams who were winning counties.
“That goes back to what I was saying about the standard of the championship in Cork - and how hard it is to win county titles, no matter what the grade is.
“Sars know that, too. The profiles of the teams are pretty similar - a couple of county players, a couple of experienced players and a few young lads.
“I’d say it could be cagey to start off, but the only way you’re guaranteed to get out of your group is to win three games, and with scoring difference no side will want to lose by too much - and each side will want to win by as much as possible.”