Cork manager Kieran Kingston says Sunday’s visit to Kilkenny represents the true gauge of his developing team’s progress.
The traditional rivals clash in a pivotal Allianz Hurling League tussle as hosts Kilkenny aim to collect their first points of the campaign, with Cork determined to bounce back from their defeat to Dublin last time out.
Cork are boosted by the returns of Luke O’Farrell and Brian Lawton, both in contention to feature in the League for the first time this year, while Stephen McDonnell and Damian Cahalane could earn their first starts in this competition.
But while Kingston is preparing to welcome back four players, he’s also without four as Conor O’Sullivan, Paul Haughney, Michael Cahalane and Robbie O’Flynn are ruled out for the next couple of weeks through injury.
Kingston has again stressed it’s going to take time before expectant supporters see the best of this Cork team. The Rebels opened their League campaign with an encouraging victory home victory against Clare before losing out to Dublin at Páirc Uí Rinn.
Kingston feels there was too much written and said about Cork after the Clare game – and the same applies following the Dublin loss.
He believes Cork’s true standing lies somewhere in between – and that’s why he’s eager to find out where his players stand against a Kilkenny team anxious to get off the mark. Kingston said: “I said at the start of the year, as we try to build a new team you’re going to have blips on the road, good and bad days.
“I never got carried away with the Munster League but people did get carried away with the manner in which we won our first (Allianz League) game. The Cork public is crying out for a bit of success in hurling but a lot more was written and spoken about the team after the Clare game than should have been.
“We weren’t as good as people wrote or said about that game but not as bad as what was said or written after the Dublin game either. We’re somewhere in between.”
And Kingston stressed: “Put this in context – we’re trying to build for this year and the future, and that’s not going to be easy.
“We’re a long way off dining at the top table and the focus is on ourselves, to get consistency in our game and to get the balance of the team and panel right.
“That’s going to take time, as we blend more fellas into the set-up. I said it after the Clare game and people probably didn’t listen but after the Dublin game they were probably saying, ok, that’s fair enough, that’s exactly where we’re at.”
Cork produced fine hurling for long spells against Kilkenny at Páirc Uí Rinn last year, losing a high-scoring shoot-out 2-22 to 2-23, having been caught down the straight. But they haven’t won a League tie against Kilkenny since 2012 and even then, when the sides met again in the final of the competition a month later, the Cats ran out 14-point winners.
And Kingston said: “It’s well-noted Nowlan Park is a difficult place to go. It’s worse going there when Kilkenny are looking for a result, the same as ourselves. No All- Irelands are won in February and Kilkenny and everybody else are long enough around to know that.
“Remember Kilkenny were in a relegation final in 2015 but ended up winning the All-Ireland so I don’t think anybody in Kilkenny is panicking after the first two League games. For us, it just makes our task a bit more difficult. Cork’s record there in recent years hasn’t been good and going up there when Kilkenny are perceived to need the result makes it more of a challenge.”
And Kingston says playing Kilkenny is the ideal barometer as all counties reach the midway point in the group stages. He added: “For the last number of years, Cork’s success hasn’t been great there but we like going there – it gives you a sense of where you are. To go to Kilkenny on a Sunday afternoon, albeit in March, gives you a sense of where you are as a player and a team. That’s a great challenge and that’s why people play the game.” And Kingston insists while Tipperary have taken Kilkenny’s previous mantle as All-Ireland champions, Brian Cody and his charges still deserve the utmost respect.
He said: “With the success they’ve had over the last decade and beyond, they have been the benchmark.
“Ok, Tipp are the All- Ireland champions, so they’ve become the benchmark, rightly so and deservedly so, and their form in the League has supported that to date.
“We’re in that transition between the team that nearly won the All-Ireland in 2013 and the team of now.”
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