Nobody will be getting too carried way with the league, but by the same token the Rebels are showing positive signs
Nobody disputes early season form and results in the National Hurling League don’t always provide an accurate indication as to how a team is likely to shape up when there are bigger fish to fry in the championship.
To develop a winning habit is no load at the same time, especially when experimentation is largely the name of the game as far as the man at the helm and his co-mentors are concerned.
So new Cork manager Pat Ryan has every reason to feel satisfied with what has transpired with the season still in its infancy, as his new-look side clocked up a second consecutive victory at Galway’s expense in Pearse Stadium last Sunday.
For a variety of reasons, Cork’s line-out didn’t include eleven of the players who started in last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final clash with the Tribesmen. The exceptions were goalkeeper Patrick Collins, centre-back Ciaran Joyce and Conor Lehane and Shane Kingston up front.
Among the more notable absentees were former All-Stars Seamus Harnedy, Mark Coleman and Darragh Fitzgibbon, along with team skipper Seán O’Donoghue, Tim O’Mahony and Robbie O’Flynn, who excelled in attack before picking up an injury during the win over Limerick the previous week-end.
Both Lehane and Kingston played leading roles against Galway last Sunday up front where Blarney’s Shane Barrett also made a noteworthy impact. The forward who stole the show, however, was Fr O’Neills’ Declan Dalton, who scored six points from play and was a central figure in the lead-up to several other fruitful Cork raids.
The sturdily-built Dalton has been a veritable scoring machine at club level for quite a while now, and his overall performance against Galway suggests he could be ready to blossom in the top flight this season.
It’s very early days yet of course, but there are solid grounds to suspect there’s going to be intense competition for places in attack on the championship team.
Courcey Rovers’ Seán Twomey was another to pay his way last Sunday, converting a couple of goal chances with conviction, while the return of Harnedy, O’Flynn, and Blackrock’s Alan Connolly to the fold, and the possibility that Alan Cadogan and the versatile Tim O’Mahony will also be in the mix, makes it conceivable we could have a situation whereby no player, not even Patrick Horgan, is guaranteed inclusion in the first-choice forward sextet.
Iconic veteran Horgan was in razor-sharp form during Cork’s opening league outing against Limerick, serving notice he’s out to prove a point after he was kept in reserve for the championship encounter with Galway last summer.
Introduced for the second-half, his contribution from frees caused many to conclude Cork would have won the game had he been in from the start on a day when both Conor Lehane and Mark Colemen were untypically profligate from placed balls before the break.
Every player on the panel should believe he’s good enough to make the team, so it’s understandable Horgan felt he deserved to be accommodated on the starting fifteen, but his recent criticism of the management in regard to the way things were generally handled behind the scenes in 2022 was hard to fathom.
That Cork went under by the bare minimum in an All-Ireland quarter final they should have won against Galway – who later ran all-conquering Limerick to three points – suggests Kieran Kingston and his backroom colleagues must have been doing something right last year.
Aside from Declan Dalton, Shane Barrett and Seán Twomey, other comparative rookies to fare out particularly well last Sunday were Bride Rovers’ Brian Roche, in the first-half, at midfield, and Glen Rovers’ Eoin Downey, who build on a highly promising debut game against Limerick with another assured display at full-back.
It’s never easy for a visiting team to come away with the spoils from Pearse Stadium, and the early indications were that Cork would be hard-pressed to do so, as they were three points behind before Dalton placed Lehane for an equalising goal in the 11th minute.
Again Galway appeared to be motoring smoothly when they held a five-point lead with 18 minutes gone, but, having got back on terms before half-time, Cork snatched the initiative courtesy of a brace of goals shared by Twomey and Lehane shortly after the resumption.
There was much to admire in terms of work-rate and self-belief about Cork’s display overall, and they were full value for a five-point win in the end. It goes without saying Pat Ryan won’t be getting carried away by his charges’ good start to the season.
Regardless of how the rest of the league campaign unfolds, Limerick will remain the team they all have to beat in the championship. After Waterford failed to put their best foot forward in the wake of their NHL success last year, there is a growing perception that to go all the way in the league somehow militates against a team’s championship prospects.
Yet, Limerick did the league-championship double in 2020, and league winners Waterford weren’t the only team to finish empty-handed in the All-Ireland race last year.
Ultimate league glory may not be a priority for Pat Ryan, but he’ll be expecting the team to try to win every game nevertheless.
And should Cork end up as league kingpins, it would surely boost confidence-levels, leaving them with decent momentum heading into the championship opener against Waterford in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on April 30.
Whatever happens, there has to be positives taken from the fact that 30 players have been given game-time in two league outings to date, victories have been recorded over the All-Ireland champions and one of the main pretenders to the throne, and Cork are currently table-topping their group.
What’s not to like about that?