Travelling to Thurles on the Sunday morning of May 21, the Cork hurlers knew there was history to be made. Not the sort of history, though, you’d want to be associated with.
Cork had never gone three years without managing at least one victory in the Munster championship. To avoid such ignominy, they’d have to take the reigning All-Ireland champions on their home patch. The team selected to do so contained five players who’d never started a championship match. The remaining 10 had been present inside the whitewash the previous July, when Cork fell to Wexford for the first time in 60 years.
The team selected to do so contained five players who’d never started a championship match. The remaining 10 had been present inside the whitewash the previous July, when Cork fell to Wexford for the first time in 60 years.
Fast forward to Sunday, August 13. Cork, the Munster champions, lead Waterford by two points with 13 minutes remaining on the clock.
Thirteen minutes to an All-Ireland final. Those 13 minutes went anything but to plan, but when Kieran Kingston and his management team sit down to analyse 2017, the positives will far outweigh the black marks.
Darragh Fitzgibbon celebrated his 20th birthday in April, Shane Kingston will celebrate his later this month. Mark Coleman doesn’t hit 20 until December. As for Luke Meade, he’ll turn 21 this October.
Patrick Horgan aside, Fitzgibbon was Cork’s outstanding performer. Mark Coleman is second only to Conor Whelan in the race for young hurler of the year. Fair going for a group who’d never started a championship match for Cork before May 21.
Kingston, Coleman and Fitzgibbon were part of this year’s UCC freshers team which was jointly coached by Seán Óg Ó hAilpín and Tom Kenny. The latter, a two-time All-Ireland winner, says the injection of young blood was badly needed.
“This has been the first year in a long time where players have come through. The younger lads don’t have any fear. They’ve put a pep in the step of the older players.
“Over the last 15, 20 years, you associate Cork teams with young fellas that spring up out of nowhere. Kieran and his management team have done that this year. The young lads got a taste of Croke Park on Sunday, albeit they didn’t get the result they came for. That’ll whet their appetite for 2018.”
YOUNGSTERS WE DIDN’T SEE
Twelve members of John Melyer’s U21 squad trained with the seniors throughout 2017. Along with the above mentioned quartet, Patrick Collins, Chris O’Leary and Michael O’Halloran were part of Sunday’s match-day 26.
Completing the dozen are Robbie O’Flynn, Sean O’Donoghue, Darren Browne, David Lowney and David Griffin.
Having spent the past nine months adapting to life at senior level, 2018 will be about writing their names on the starting team-sheet.
“I saw, first-hand, the potential of these lads through my role with UCC,” Kenny continues. “Robbie [O’Flynn] has a bright future ahead of him. If he can be moulded in the way Luke, Mark, Shane and Darragh have been this year, he has great potential for next year.
“Last year and the years before that, we were critical of the fact that youngsters weren’t coming through. All of a sudden, those players seem to be there. You have an U17 team that won an All-Ireland title and a minor team in an All-Ireland final.
“You don’t want to say everything is looking bright for Cork hurling, but at the moment, all indicators seem to point in the right direction with regard to winning Munster championships, making Croke Park and bringing renewed hope to the people on the street.”
Cork sub Killian Burke remarked ahead of the semi-final that no member of the Cork rearguard was subbed during the Munster championship. It spoke volumes of how collectively effective they had been. Management, in fact, opted for the same 15 for each of their four championship outings.
Kenny observed: “For next year, management will use the league to get another five or six players up to the level where, when they come on, they will have an impact and who could also possibly start.”
STYLE OF PLAY
Define or label it whatever way you want, but Cork know how they want to play. That it didn’t get them over the line on Sunday shouldn’t lead to significant tweaking ahead of next year.
“While people will always follow Cork, the levels of enthusiasm and the numbers travelling to games went through the roof in 2017. The players are to thank for that. They got back to playing good, traditional style Cork hurling,” Kenny insisted. “They are playing short, snappy hurling. It’s appealing and has led to a reconnection with Cork supporters. It also won three out of four championship games.”
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