'Fraggy' and Cork shape up for summer of redemption
Cork's new-found momentum makes them dangerous foes this season, writes Marie Crowe
K ieran 'Fraggy' Murphy has always had to fight to stand out from the crowd. In his early school going days he was known as mousy, but this was soon changed to Fraggy as the number of kids who shared his nickname increased. He still isn't the biggest guy around, but now he captains a side that boasts some of the giants of modern hurling.
The 27-year-old leads a team packed with former captains and all time greats. Donal óg Cusack, Seán óg ó hAilpín and John Gardiner to name but a few of those who will feature throughout the season. But Murphy is ready for the challenge and although he concedes that the people of Cork have high expectations, he reckons they must be fairly happy with how the league is progressing so far.
This time last year, the Rebels were still reeling from the impact of the strike. They were bottom of the league after suffering three consecutive defeats. Now, things couldn't be more different. There's harmony in the camp and three wins out of three in the league, including a particularly pleasant defeat of Kilkenny.
"The main thing this year is that we have had a pre-season. We missed it over the last few years because of the strikes but we're after getting eight or nine weeks of training under our belts at this stage and fellas are in way better shape than they have been over the last few years.
"We're definitely mentally stronger this year and there are nine new fellas on the panel. It brings freshness to the set-up and Denis [Walsh] is creating fierce competition for places on the team. When you look at each line there are probably two or three guys looking to come in and take the starting spot off the guys who are playing there at the moment."
The most recent players' strike, just over 12 months ago, was a difficult period for all the Rebels. But for Murphy, being from Sarsfields, it had an extra edge. A number of his clubmates were playing on the squad of young guns that Gerald McCarthy recruited during the strike, resulting in rumours circulating that Murphy would break ranks and join the Sars boys.
"To be honest, when we decided to go, we all had the option of going or playing with Gerald and all 30 of us decided to go. It never really crossed my mind to go back. The club were always supportive; it was never an issue. You are old enough to make your own choices I had conversations with them but it was always my own decision."
Last year started badly in Cork hurling, and ended badly (and abruptly) too with a quarter-final defeat to Galway. However, as they look back on it the players are determined to take positives from the season. For instance, they have embraced the slog of pre-season training with vigour, while Walsh has had time to settle into the position.
"The year past will definitely stand to us and to Denis. He was coming in fresh to it and to be honest I didn't really know him apart from his playing career. He had time to get to know us and see what players are out there and he used that to his advantage. He knows us now and we know Denis and things are going very well at the moment.
"He has made one or two small changes, like he is trying to bring in a more physical aspect to the training, nothing major, just a bit. You always find yourself getting more physical just because of the way the game is going. We are in a position this year where we find ourselves fitter and stronger at this time than we were in the last two years. The footballers are after having a few good years so hopefully we can match their achievements and try to bring home some silverware.
"Every fella on the team is putting emphasis on the league in the sense that it's vital to getting your position for the championship. If you don't play well in the league, then you won't get your place in the championship. Players are using it to stake their claim."
In the league games so far there have been changes all around the field. So intense is the competition that not even the captain has nailed down a starting spot.
"At the end of the day you put the pressure on yourself, I try not to think about it too much. At the end of the day it's up to Denis and the selectors to pick the team all I can do is put myself in the best position to try and get into the starting 15. All I'm focused on at the moment is trying to play well and do my best for the team.
"There are a lot of young fellas coming in and everyone on the panel is in good shape. Maybe it's because I'm getting older, I don't know, but the younger players seem to be pushing harder and harder. It's up to us to try to step up to the mark."
Championship is where it's at and the re-emergence of Cork gives added spice to the summer as Kilkenny chase five in a row and Tipperary strive harder to close the gap. It's too early to be making assumptions but the potential for Cork to cause an upset is impossible to ignore.
"It will come down to the first game against Tipperary really," says Murphy. "If we win that, we will be looking to have a good Munster campaign. Confidence and public support will come with us if we beat Tipperary, but if we have to go through the back door then questions will be asked and people will begin to doubt the team and the management. If we can beat Tipperary, hopefully we can have a good year."
Today they face Waterford and Murphy's old boss from his LIT days, Davy Fitzgerald. The Deise have won three out of the last five meetings in the Munster championship in games that have probably been some of the best of the decade. The 2007 Munster semi-final producing eight goals and 33 points.
"Waterford and Cork give such good games because it is just good teams going up against each other. They go all out offensively looking to score as much as they can, play hurling and see what happens on the day. Both teams know each other and have provided great battles over the years.
"Davy managed me for two years and we won two Fitzgibbons so obviously I rate him very highly as a manager. I would say he is a players' manager, he is the kind of coach you can approach and have a chat to. He did a lot for my confidence in LIT and I have a lot of time for him."
Walsh Park today is another step on the ladder for Cork. And there are plenty more rungs for them to climb.
Waterford v Cork,