John Meyler isn’t underplaying the significance of tonight’s League opener for a minute.
It’s his first outing as Cork hurling manager in the competitions. It’s the first Cork inter-county hurling game in the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh. And then there’s the visitors.
“Kilkenny are regrouping and rebuilding so they’ll be really focused on the league. Brian Cody has said the National Hurling League is his main emphasis this year. We can only start with the first game against Kilkenny, so we’ll be as strong as we can be.”
Meyler has run the rule over his squad already, in the Munster Senior Hurling League: what did he take out of that competition?
“We used the three games we played, against Limerick, Clare and Kerry, to try to find some new players. I thought the matches were very productive. Tim O’Mahony and Darren Browne, for instance, (caught the eye) against Limerick and, to a lesser extent, Clare.
“It gives us options going forward this year, and those are options we’re going to need going forward. We’ll need to bring new players in, to try players out and where else are you going to find those players other than the Munster Senior League? The National Hurling League is ultra-competitive in Division 1A. We have Kilkenny, Clare, Wexford . . . it’s going to be extremely challenging.”
Cork unearthed real talent last year, and Meyler hopes those players can progress further in 2018.
“Five of them made their debuts, in a real way, the four young fellas and Colm Spillane, and for the five of them to stay there the whole season, it was a huge credit to them and a huge credit to Kieran (Kingston, last year’s manager).
“We’ll be hoping those five can kick on and get up to where the likes of Conor Lehane and Seamus Harnedy are, and that we can introduce the likes of Tim O’Mahony and Darren Browne, Robbie O’Flynn, to get to another level. They’ve been on the panel for the last year, so hopefully they can step up the way the lads did last year.”
The new championship structures demand depth in the panel, he adds, as Cork face a minimum of nine games - five league and four championship - in the coming months.
“Yeah, and in that period you’re going to have fellas with niggles, with various issues that’ll appear, and we’ll need to have backup. That’s more critical this year than ever before.
“You need more back-up. You’ve got to use the squad. Last year we played our four championship matches with no changes to our starting fifteen - I don’t think that’s possible this year.
“It might be a bit of long-term planning, but we tried to expose players, the likes of Jack O’Connor, against Limerick to see what would happen. We weren’t at full strength but he played well, so that gives us another option.
“We had other challenge games and gave him some game time in those, and hopefully we’ll be able to introduce players like him in the league over the coming weeks.”
For all the challenges it poses, Meyler supports the new system.
“If you check my record I was always a fan of it, I think it’s a great idea. The Cork public will get two home matches and two away matches rather than travelling to Thurles. Compare that to last year when we travelled to Thurles for three matches and Dublin for one, the Cork public had no home matches - Cork business suffers as a result, the people sponsoring Cork don’t get the value of local matches, so that’ll change.”
What doesn’t change is the challenge. Take tonight’s opponents.
“Our target is our first game against Kilkenny, it’s really important to get off to a good start.
“Any time Kilkenny come to Cork it’s going to be extremely difficult, but that’s the challenge facing us. We’re away then to Wexford and after a break it’s Clare, so they’re huge games. Then, you have to rest some players as well.
The training load is another issue as the league progresses, he adds: “We’ve trained extremely hard up to the league to try to get all our work done, because coming into May is going to be very different this year. We’ve stressed the importance of doing a lot of our work up to the league, then the league happens and we’ll train accordingly through that with Declan (O’Sullivan, physical trainer). But we’ve a plan in place for all of that.”
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