Should the Cork minor hurlers find a way past Waterford this evening, the likely prize — if you can even call it that — is a Munster MHC semi-final meeting away to All-Ireland champions Tipperary.
Were this fixture to come to pass, it would be the second consecutive summer in which two of the top-rated teams in the country are pitted together at such an early juncture. It would also mean that, for the second year in a row, one of the favourites for All-Ireland glory wouldn’t even make it as far as their respective provincial final.
Last year’s clash ended in defeat for the Rebels and it was a similar tale of woe in the 2015 Munster semi against Limerick. It is against this backdrop there is considerable pressure on Denis Ring’s management team and his latest group of nascent talents to not alone find a way past Waterford but to navigate a path that takes them to the Munster final. So never mind that oft-quoted stat a Cork team hasn’t contested a Munster final since 2008 or the fact three of the four championship wins secured between 2011 and 2014 were against Kerry. The pressure is there because the last two years have seen very capable minor teams assembled and yet both were sent packing by the first week of July.
The current crop is fancied by virtue of having swept the boards coming up through the ranks. There was Tony Forristal success in 2013, backed up by further silverware at the Tipperary Supporters Club All-Ireland U16 tournament two years later. The expectation surrounding them is justified.
“I wouldn’t be putting undue pressure on a group of players which had nothing to do with the last eight years. I wouldn’t be putting eight years of pressure on them,” says Denis Ring. “This group, unlike last year’s group, has had good success at development squad level. Last year’s group had won nothing coming up along. This team has. That is a positive because they have that confidence within them at having won those competitions.
“In terms of any further pressure, the most important thing at minor is to provide players who will go on to wear the Cork jersey at U21 and senior level. The ideal scenario, though, is to do that off the back of success. And we want to win. We have been there or thereabouts the last two years. It just didn’t work out.”
It is necessary at this point to rewind to last June and that clash between Tipperary and Cork at Páirc Uí Rinn. The home outfit led 1-12 to 0-9 early in the second-half and despite a glut of Tipperary scores thereafter, it was still level pegging with eight minutes remaining. The Premier youngsters went on to win the Munster decider by 17 points, put seven goals past Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final and were comfortable for most of their seven-point All-Ireland final win over Limerick.
Go back to 2015 and Cork had already beaten Limerick by 10 points when they reconvened for their semi-final clash. Cork, on this occasion, were without the injured Shane Kingston. They lost by a goal. Kingston made his senior championship bow the following summer, suggesting that the loss of one player did have a major bearing on the outcome.
“If Shane Kingston wasn’t injured, the feeling was we could have won an All-Ireland in 2015,” Ring continues. “Last year, if we withstood Tipp pressure in the final quarter, that team possibly could have won an All-Ireland. It was an interesting cocktail of emotions watching Tipperary win an All-Ireland knowing we had given them probably their toughest game. There was the frustration of what might have been.
“Mark Coleman, Shane Kingston, Darragh Fitzgibbon and David Griffin were on the team in 2015. They are all making the breakthrough at senior and are looking comfortable at the top level. There will be players from last year’s team who will make a big impact for the U21s this year. I would see the future as being very bright for Cork. Obviously, you want to win and to be winning championships. But if you are competitive against the best teams, players will still come through. And they are.”
Before they go looking at Tipperary or a Munster final, Waterford first have to be taken care of. Ring, owing to his position as principal of Blackwater CS is Lismore, has a better knowledge than most of the Déise squad. His argument the Waterford team that fell to Clare by 18 points in the quarter-final was not their strongest team has been strengthened by the six changes the Déise made for their trip to Páirc Uí Rinn.
“That performance the last day wasn’t a fair reflection. A number of their players have stood out with their clubs during the early rounds of the Waterford SHC the last couple of weeks. They’ll be a different kettle of fish to what they showed in Ennis.”
CORK (MHC v Waterford):
G Collins (Ballinhassig); C O’Callaghan (Dromtarriffe), S O’Leary-Hayes (Midleton), E Roche (Bride Rovers); R Howell (Douglas), J Keating (Kildorrery), G Millerick (Fr O’Neill’s); D Connery (Na Piarsaigh), D Lenihan (Ballyhooly); C Hanifin (Na Piarsaigh), L O’Shea (Lisgoold), B Roche (Bride Rovers); E Sheehan (Na Piarsaigh), R Downey (Glen Rovers), B Turnbull (Douglas).
E Browne (Mount Sion); C Giles-Doran (De La Salle), J Flavin (Ardmore), D Booth (Colligan); M Power (Clonea), L O’Brien (Mount Sion), M Noonan (Cappoquin); I Daly (Lismore), S Whelan-Barrett (Abbeyside); T Looby (Abbeyside), B Power (Clonea), H Ruddle (Ballygunner); C Whelan (Brickey Rangers), T Douglas (De La Salle), Gavin Dalton (Modeligo).
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