Friday 17 November 2017

New-look Banner could be vulnerable to buoyed up Cork

Noel Horgan

There's sure to be more interest than usual in the composition of the Cork team for the opening game in the National Hurling League.

National Hurling League Division 1A, Cork v Clare, Saturday, February 11, Pairc Uí Rinn, 7pm

The policy of different Cork managements over the years has been to run the rule over a raft of fringe players in a pre-season competition, but it was normally the case that the majority of the neophytes had little or no chance of gaining a place in the squad when the serious business began.

Last year, for instance, the panel assembled by new manager Kieran Kingston for the National League contained less than a handful of new faces, while only four rookies got a bit of game-time in the 2016 championship.

Although Cork had been humiliated by Galway in an All-Ireland quarter final the previous year, and by Tipperary in the All-Ireland series in 2014, Kingston and his co-mentors obviously felt the players involved in those two campaigns remained the best in the county going forward.

It was easy to appreciate where Kingston was coming from, bearing in mind that Cork's dearth of under-age success (no All-Ireland Under 21 title since 1998 and no All-Ireland minor title since 2001) suggested there was a distinct shortage of quality material coming through.

After enduring what amounted to a baptism of fire in his first season at the helm, however, Kingston appears to be satisfied that the time has come to make a serious attempt to revamp the squad and that the introduction of fresh blood is what's required to revitalise the set-up.

To this end, the management embarked on an extensive auditioning process in the recent Munster League and they made no secret of the fact that, in contrast to previous years, it wasn't going to be just a cosmetic exercise this time.

With Cork going on to register five wins on-the-trot, beating Limerick in a hard-fought final, the management, while eager to keep the whole thing in context, were clearly delighted with the effort and attitude displayed by all the players involved over the course of the competition.

For obvious reasons, much of their focus would have been on how the young guns on duty shaped up, and it's expected that a few of them will be strongly in contention for a place on the team to face Clare in the league opener at Pairc Uí Rinn next Saturday evening.

Such as Shane Kingston (Douglas), Mark Coleman (Blarney), David Griffin (Carrigaline), Darragh Fitzgibbon (Charleville), Michael Cahalane (Bandon) and Luke Meade (Newcestown) all managed to lay down a marker when pressed into action in the Munster League, with Kingston, Coleman and Griffin especially consistent.

Kingston, a star minor two years ago, is virtually certain to get the nod up front, while Coleman, who also excelled with the minors in 2015, and Griffin, one of the few players to impress with the Cork Under 21 team last year, could also be in line to make their league debut in defence.

The likelihood is that most of the up-and-coming hopefuls will be afforded the opportunity to show what they can do before the league has run its course, and maybe by then it will be confirmed that the management's decision to give youth its fling has paid off, leaving them with plenty of options heading into the championship.

That's probably the main objective in the league this season, but Cork will be hoping to compete well at the same time, so it's likely the selectors won't go overboard on experimentation for any of the games.

Given that the margins between making the play-offs and being plunged into a relegation final in Division 1A have been wafer-thin over the past few years, they'll be putting out a strong side for every match and it can be taken for granted there will be a rich vein of experience running through the team to face Clare on Saturday night.

With the backing of what's guaranteed to be a big home crowd, it's a contest that Cork would be quite capable of winning, although Clare are entitled to start as favourites, not least because the bulk of their players have tasted success at national level in recent times.

They won the league last year, but they didn't enjoy a good championship, failing to measure up against Waterford in Munster and against Galway in an All-Ireland quarter-final.

There is no denying they haven't progressed to the extent that was widely anticipated after they won the 2013 All-Ireland - beating Cork in a replayed final - with a very young team, but, having completed a hat-trick of All-Ireland Under 21 titles in 2014, it has to be accepted they still possess considerable potential.

Likely to be without their most accomplished hurler Tony Kelly on Saturday night, however, due to Ballyea's qualification for an All-Ireland club final, they could be vulnerable against a Cork side that's bound to be brimming with intent and desire.


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