The Cork team that fell to Galway in last June’s All-Ireland quarter-final read as follows: Patrick Collins; Niall O’Leary, Damien Cahalane, Sean O’Donoghue; Rob Downey, Ciarán Joyce, Mark Coleman; Darragh Fitzgibbon, Luke Meade; Robbie O’Flynn, Seamus Harnedy, Shane Kingston; Tim O’Mahony, Alan Connolly, Conor Lehane.
Replacements used were Patrick Horgan, Jack O’Connor, Ger Millerick, Alan Cadogan, and Tommy O’Connell.
In Cork’s five league outings this season, none of the team selections have come remotely close to resembling the line-up from the county’s final championship outing of 2022.
But then again, how could they, what with the spate of injuries to the panel’s more experienced cohort?
Mark Coleman, Darragh Fitzgibbon, Tim O’Mahony, and Alan Connolly haven’t played a single minute in 2023.
Sean O’Donoghue, Robbie O’Flynn, and Patrick Horgan haven’t featured since the Round 1 win over Limerick on February 4. Damien Cahalane, another to start against Limerick, missed the subsequent three rounds and saw only the last 11 minutes against Clare on Sunday.
Rob Downey, Seamus Harnedy, Jack O’Connor, and Alan Cadogan didn’t see league action until introduced as second-half subs in the Round 4 win over Wexford.
The quartet made their first starts of the season last weekend against Clare, although in the case of Harnedy, his first-half hamstring injury at Cusack Park means his league involvement to date amounts to only 54 minutes.
Ger Millerick’s league involvement - the first half against Westmeath and a cameo off the bench against Clare - also comes in around the 54-minute mark.
Injuries to 13 of the 20 players used against Galway last summer have opened the door for the panel’s younger brigade. But should it be a concern for management that with championship fast approaching so many players are without a meaningful amount of competitive match minutes in their legs?
Pat Ryan said after Sunday’s Clare stalemate that Fitzgibbon and O’Mahony are in contention to make their first appearances of 2023 in this weekend’s League semi-final. The injury list, though, remains crowded and if Cork come off second best at Nowlan Park, there’ll be no further opportunity for competitive game time ahead of their Munster opener against Waterford on April 30.
“The likes of Seamus Harnedy and Patrick Horgan, two of the more established players, if they don't see [further league] gametime, it mightn't be the end of the world because they have the experience and they understand how to get up to speed fairly quickly,” said former Cork midfielder Tom Kenny when throwing an eye over those in red who have been largely absent this spring.
“Sean O'Donoghue, Darragh Fitzgibbon, Robbie O’Flynn and these lads, you'd be looking for them to impact and play sooner rather than later. You would like to get some bit of gametime into them.
“From any player's point of view, you don't want to go cold into a championship game. You would like to have some bit of gametime in your legs. The last competitive game for some of them would have been against Galway last June.
“So from that point of view, it is not ideal. But it is not as if the team is crying out for their return because they are successful.
“And if the team was to win a League semi-final and final, then I am sure the selectors won't be overly concerned that they don't have their full hand because they’ll have given young players a chance that have won trophies already.”
Across their five-game unbeaten league run, management have looked at 39 players. Half this total enjoyed All-Ireland U20 success under Ryan during the summer of 2021.
Standing out for Kenny have been full-back Eoin Downey, the Roche brothers, Eoin and Brian, and inside forward Padraig Power.
“If management had a full hand from early doors, they might have been only picking and choosing [from the younger lads]. They were forced to throw fellas in at the deep end and they have managed quite well so far.
“Sometimes if you have too many younger players, it mightn’t go to plan, and they can suffer a defeat that knocks their confidence. But a lot of the younger players have had success at U20, under the same management, so they had the confidence of knowing what Pat and his selectors were about.”
Should Cork overcome Kilkenny and move within 70 minutes of a first League crown in 25 years, Kenny says management will have a decision to make?
“Do you, not sacrifice a League title per se, but do you play senior lads to get gametime into them with a view to the championship or do you reward the form of the younger players, play them in a League final and hope they win a League trophy?
“Cork haven't won a League since 1998 and an All-Ireland since 2005. A national title would be very good for Pat, no more than Derek Lyng too, in that you are first year in the job and the monkey is off the back in terms of winning trophies.”