Thursday 22 February 2018

Rising tide lifts all Rebel boats

Minor victory adds to a senior success as good as any other in modern era

Cork’s Mark Coleman scores a point from a sideline cut during their victory against Clare. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Cork’s Mark Coleman scores a point from a sideline cut during their victory against Clare. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

So, the transformation has been franked by silverware. From where they were exactly a year earlier to where they were on Sunday night is a journey really only a blue-blood hurling county like Cork can travel.

That description may not sit so easily in other counties who strive to better themselves but the context of their respective exits from Semple Stadium, 12 months apart, could not have been greater.

On the same calendar date in 2016 they lost a championship match to Wexford for the first time in 60 years.

On Sunday evening last they left Thurles with both Munster titles, senior and minor, one as significant as the other for different reasons.

A rising tide is clearly lifting all boats with the minors claiming their first provincial title in the grade since 2008, just a few months after their U-17 team took their Munster title.

In both cases they had to negotiate three rounds, with the minors playing four games after a draw with Tipperary.

The sleeping giant that has been Cork underage hurling for so long is clearly awakening and the conveyor belt is cranking up impressively.

One Munster minor title in the decade shouldn't distort the overall picture of underachievement but simmering beneath is a potentially big resurgence ready to catch hold.


Two years ago they enjoyed a remarkable weekend of success in the national underage tournament blitzes when they claimed all seven trophies on offer.

By any standards it was quite an achievement to win all 24 matches they played as prestigious titles such as the Tony Forristal Cup (U-14), the Carrigdhoun Blitz (U-15), Tipperary Supporters Club Tournament (U-16) and the Eugene Carey Tournament (U-17), together with the B competitions at U-14, 15 and 16 levels.

But it is the senior team that inevitably binds everything together and its resurgence this summer has culminated in a Munster title that might just be valuable as any other in the modern era given the standard of the other counties in the province, two of the last three All-Ireland winners, Tipperary (2016) and Clare (2013), and a Waterford team that has reached the last two All-Ireland semi-finals.

To beat all three over the last seven weeks stands out in the company of the 2003 win which followed the difficulties of the 2002 winter strike and the 1999 win which came after a seven-year gap and as pressure was mounting on Jimmy Barry Murphy.

The Cork public have recognised this too and have really got behind them, especially in the last two games. With a team infused by youth playing bold, fast hurling the connection is always likely to gain strength and so far just short of 110,000 have watched their three games, providing the Munster Council with an obvious lift.

Kieran Kingston and his management team deserve credit for the changes they have made, not just to the team but to how they operate themselves.

That 14 of Sunday's starting team featured among the 20 players used against Wexford reflects well on their work.

The involvement in an advisory capacity of Gary Keegan, the former high performance director with the Irish Amateur Boxing Association and director at the Irish Institute of Sport, has clearly given them renewed focus.

Their work with key individual players like Damien Cahalane and Patrick Horgan has also reaped benefits.

Cahalane, who resisted the temptation to join Aidan Walsh and return to the football squad, was quite error-prone in the earlier part of his career but this year his striking and positioning have been so much more assured. Having Mark Coleman and Colm Spillane around you is an obvious help.

Horgan has had difficult days with frees in the past, most notably the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final against Tipperary, while he lost his place during the league after a poor run of form.

But his recovery has been steady and despite the responsibility for placed balls being given to Conor Lehane for the Tipperary game, Horgan was back on duty for the last two days, amassing 23 points, five from play, to take him past Christy Ring as the county's top championship scorer.

He is perhaps now unburdened by the pressure of being Cork's go-to forward with Lehane and Alan Cadogan enjoying such rich veins of form, Seamus Harnedy continuing to provide a robust ball-winning presence and that infusion of youth through the likes of Shane Kingston, Luke Meade and Darragh Fitzgibbon, despite their withdrawals on Sunday.

It has left Cork in a strong position, though the memory of that All-Ireland semi-final loss to Tipperary after their previous Munster win will be strong and was quickly referenced by Kingston in the aftermath of their 52nd title.

Tipp's display against a Dublin team in sharp regression was ominous with their full-forward line contributing 5-10 from play (5-17 in all), more than the 2-15 they delivered from 2-21 in last year's All-Ireland final.

And they, with Galway, remain the main protagonists as the All-Ireland race narrows to six after the weekend action, despite Waterford's recovery to beat Kilkenny.

Whatever happens for Cork next month however, the movement is on.

On the weekend after next the doors open to the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh and with the novelty value of curious locals the GAA anticipate crowds that could go close to 45,000 capacity on both days for All-Ireland quarter-finals.

Maybe they'd go anyway but the return of two cups from Munster final day for the first time since 2006 will surely increase footfall to the Páirc next week despite no involvement.

No hurling county can transform quite like them, it seems.



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