Kieran Kingston doesn’t want the conversation centring on the younger members of his Cork team. That’s understandable.
For Mark Coleman, Darragh Fitzgibbon, Luke Meade and Kingston’s own son, Shane, Sunday will not alone mark their first Munster final, it will also represent just their third championship start in a Cork shirt.
Meade, at the ripe old age of 20, is the oldest of the quartet. He wasn’t even part of Cork’s match-day 26 when they entertained Dublin in the qualifiers this time last year. The remaining three are still teenagers.
They, along with the other eight U21s also part of Kingston’s panel, began as a development group which worked parallel to the senior squad throughout 2016. Fitzgibbon, Kingston and Coleman were promoted to the senior match-day squad for what proved a brief qualifier run, with the latter pair afforded minimal game-time. That their transition to first-team starters has been so seamless, according to Kingston, stems from their ability to go out and “play it as they see it”.
“Those lads were on a development panel, which was worked on offline last year,” Kingston reveals.
“We felt just because Cork hadn’t won an All-Ireland minor in 16 years or an U21 in 19 years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t good players coming through who are capable of stepping up and playing at senior level. Cork hurling is stronger than people think between [the ages of] 14 and 19/20.
“We identified lads we felt had potential to play down the road and we felt we needed to work with them in the background, on strength-and-conditioning, nutrition, and things like that. The development panel was separate to the senior panel, but we looked after it.
The Cork manager added: “We took the Munster league more serious than other teams did at the start of the year, because we said we’d use it to see how they react to playing at senior level, the physicality of it, winter hurling, the whole mindset and all that goes with it. We gave them the opportunity and they took it.”
Giving them their opportunity, though – five players were handed their first championship start for the trip to Thurles to play the All-Ireland champions — was high risk.
“That’s why you’re in the job, to make decisions you feel are in the best interests of Cork hurling. The younger lads are not trying to complicate it. We don’t complicate it with them. That gives a great balance to the team, because they don’t do tactics, they just go out and play it as they see it.”
Kingston turns the focus onto the players who have been wearing the red shirt for a number of years now, players who were hammered for their limp showing when falling to Tipperary in last year’s Munster championship quarter-final and again when Wexford scored a first championship win over the county since 1956.
“We can’t expect younger fellas to lead, they’ll follow the more experienced guys, and our experienced players have been fantastic in the last two games. That’s most important, that’s way more important.”
That a balance has been struck between the established and the emerging, with Tipperary and Waterford downed in the process, far from implies that the Cork house is built, Kingston stresses. This group, he tells us, is still very much a work in progress.
“The only time we have been favourites this year has been for relegation in the league. It was not would Tipperary beat us [in the Munster quarter-final], but how much by. And then we’d be the handy draw [in the qualifiers] and we’d be finished again by the end of June. Off the back of two games, where many have written we caught Tipperary on the hop and Waterford were rusty, because they had so long off, we’re not buying into any of the hype as to where we are or the house being finished. This is step- by-step. In my view, and the team’s view, we haven’t earned the right to go beyond that in our thinking.”
Cork played their Munster final opponents in a challenge match prior to the quarter-final win over Tipperary. Both teams were close to full strength, Clare running out comfortable winners.
“The happiest people leaving Thurles the last day after we beat Waterford were the Clare management and the Clare players, and that would have been the same when we beat Tipperary. Clare played us in a challenge game before we played Tipperary on the basis that they wouldn’t be seeing us in the Munster championship. You can totally understand that. We were rank outsiders. They gave us a lesson during that challenge. Clare will obviously be favourites within their own camp and they will certainly be favourites in our camp. They’ll be much happier playing us than playing Tipperary or Waterford.
“A Munster medal is a badge of honour. They don’t come around too often. Cork have only won one in 11 years. That was 2014. That is not a lot for a county like Cork.”
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