Cork keen to correct semi trend of Munster champions
With the exception of Galway in 2011, every other All-Ireland U-21 hurling title in this decade has gone to four of the five Munster counties.
That should lead to arguably the most competitive provincial senior championship environment for some time with so much high-quality underage talent pushing through and that was borne out by results in the round-robin series with three draws from 10 games.
The great contradiction, however, is that the county which failed to make any impression on even a provincial U-21 championship for the last 10 years - and has been pilloried far and wide for its apparent 'neglect' of underage teams and coaching - has now backed up last year's surprise senior success with a second one.
That Cork can land three of the last five Munster titles with no obvious pedigree challenges that corollary to past underage success being a necessity.
Perhaps it's the absence of a stellar upbringing that has left this Cork hurling team a little short of love pre-championship when confident predictions that they would retain their title were thin on the ground in the rush to acclaim Tipperary.
Maybe there's a certain irony in the fact that their natural-born leader on the field now is actually a player who slipped through the net at minor level.
Size was against their captain Seamus Harnedy as an 18-year-old but his decision-making and ball-winning ability have marked him out now as one of the game's most influential forwards.
His leadership was hailed by selector Kieran 'Fraggy' Murphy after Sunday's two-point win over a Clare side populated with All-Ireland underage winners.
"I remember talking to Denis Walsh when he was manager (2009-2011). Denis deserves a lot of credit. He spotted him. It helped that he is down in that area. He's down in Ballynoe which would be close to Seamus's club (St Ita's). He knew he had a gem in Seamus. He was exceptional out there," admitted Murphy.
Attention in Cork has quickly turned to an All-Ireland semi-final which has been a relative black hole for Munster champions so often in the recent past.
Since Cork in 2005 and 2006, only Tipperary (2009, 2011 and 2016) have won an All-Ireland semi-final as Munster champions in the 12 years since.
Waterford (2007 and 2010), Tipperary (2008, 2012 and 2015), Limerick (2013) and Cork (2014 and 2017) have all lost as champions in their next match out.
Addressing that was on John Meyler's mind straight after Sunday's win as well as highlighting that a Munster U-21 campaign featuring so many of their squad shouldn't have as big an effect as it did 12 months ago.
"Last year helps," acknowledged Colm Spillane, the defender whose switch on to John Conlon midway through the first half helped to quell the rampant Banner attacker.
"We had a five-week run-in last year and we learned a lot from it. We didn't have the U-21s for two-and-a-half weeks and it definitely affected our training.
"Nobody's fault, but we had 10 or 11 U-21s last year and we didn't have them for that time as they had two championship games.
"Whereas this year, they're playing Wednesday night and we then have them for three-and-a-half weeks and we can get the games in. We learned a lot from that last year and we'll be more ready for whoever we face in the semi-final," he predicted.
Darragh Fitzgibbon, Shane Kingston, Mark Coleman and Robbie O'Flynn give Cork a strong hand when they face Tipperary in tomorrow night's Bord Gáis U-21 decider in Páirc Uí Chaoimh but it's the more abbreviated run-in that they hope to get right this time.
The confidence extracted from an unbeaten sequence in Munster Championship games now stretching to eight games is evident. And Murphy feels the continuity that Meyler, a member of last year's back-room team, adds has been very important.
"It's massive when you consider where lads were coming from in 2016 when they played Tipp here and they were well beaten," recalled Murphy.
"In fairness, Kieran Kingston and Pat Ryan did a ferocious job last year and we were lucky that we had the likes of John to keep that continuity going.
"The lads have developed as players and as characters and if you look at the entire Munster campaign, when Limerick were ahead of us and Tipp were coming back, the players deserve the credit because they have shown great character in each game. That should give us good confidence.
"The players are just hungry for it. You see it there when Tipp came back at us, Limerick came back, even Waterford challenged us very strongly. The players, they stood up, they were the ones who performed and who were vital in the second half in pulling results out.
"We've come through another Munster Championship undefeated and we want to drive on," said Murphy. "We were beaten by Waterford last year and that hurt, that hurt.
"We'll take a look at ourselves, address what went wrong in the first half. Look at the positives in the second half and build on that.
"It's totally player-led and they are the ones who deserve the most credit because they are hungry."
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