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Cork hurling: Are the underage structures improving?

Sean Cremin discusses Cork hurling’s current position regarding underage structures and their role in Cork’s senior hurling success.

No All-Ireland minor title since 2001 and no All-Ireland under-21 title since 1998. This is the blunt reality of Cork’s underage hurling, but it doesn’t reflect the whole story of Cork’s underage performances. They have been unlucky in some cases but a comparison with the football counterparts shows that Cork haven’t got a lot right with their underage hurling structures in recent years.

But are we beginning to see an improvement?  For the senior team, pride was restored in 2013 after a difficult time for Cork hurling.  The performances of the senior team had been very poor from 2009 until 2012. Cork had failed to win an All-Ireland hurling title since 2005 and failed reach an All-Ireland final since 2006.

The provincial performances were a disappointment with only one Munster hurling final appearance since 2006 and there has been a distinct lack of success at underage level. There had been a decline in Cork hurling but the potential is now there to move forward. The people of Cork naturally have very high expectations of Cork teams, particularly in hurling. A Cork person growing up expects Cork to be competing for and also winning All-Ireland titles.

Strikes and disputes contributed hugely to a barren period and only for the welcome return of Jimmy Barry Murphy, who knows if Cork would have improved as much in 2013.  While the players’ strike in 2002 was followed with a sustained period of success between 2003 and 2006, the strikes that followed in 2007 and 2008 had a very different impact.  2009 to 2011 were very poor years for Cork and it was no coincidence.

There were no winners from the strikes; they were always going to impact negatively on the Cork team. Cork hurling was never going to move on until the leaders behind the strikes had vacated their roles on the Cork panel. Now that has happened, Cork are in a much stronger position. The majority of people would have been worried about Cork’s lack of underage success.  The lack of silverware hasn’t helped, but it doesn’t tell the full story.

People are obsessed with winning at minor and under-21 level. It is an advantage and it can help to build a strong senior team but it really isn’t that straight forward. Limerick won three consecutive under-21 All-Ireland’s between 2000-2002 and none of this transpired into senior success. Galway have often been the kingpins at underage level but have yet to claim any senior success in over 25 years.  So it’s not all about winning at underage.

Cork have had good minor and under-21 teams over the last decade or so. Last year, All-Ireland minor winners Waterford needed extra-time to defeat Cork. Cork lost a minor All-Ireland final to an exceptional Tipperary team in 2007. Cork also had very strong under-21 sides in 2010 and 2011.  2010, in particular, could have seen an All-Ireland victory for Cork had Aidan Walsh and Ciarán Sheehan been made available.

Plenty of players have come through these sides and have built the strong Cork senior team that came within seconds and inches of lifting Liam McCarthy last year. The performances of minor hurling sides have been of huge concern. This year’s side did well against a fine Waterford team.  For a few years though, the minor sides haven’t helped the senior team in any way but the performances of underage teams are improving. The county board has started a new School of Excellence and Development Squads initiative. The underage system is getting better and this year’s Dr. Harty Cup is good proof of that.

The performances of Cork secondary schools in the Dr. Harty Cup have been the main area of concern and the best reflection on Cork’s short-comings at underage. Cork have struggled badly at schools level. Midleton C.B.S won the Harty Cup in 2006 and since then no Cork school has come close to winning and schools from Waterford (De La Salle and Dungarvan Colleges), Limerick (Árdscoil Rís), Tipperary (Nenagh C.B.S, Thurles C.B.S, Our Lady’s, Templemore) and Clare (St. Flanan’s) have dominated the tournament. This has had a knock-on effect on inter-county minor teams, where Cork’s performances have been awful at times.

The culture of hurling in Cork schools has dropped significantly but it seems that forward strides are being made. The days of North Monastery, Farrenferris, St. Colman’s Fermoy, Sullivan’s Quay and others competing heavily in schools hurling are a distant memory. Recently, only Charleville C.B.S, who have a Limerick contingent, and Midleton C.B.S, who cater for most of east Cork, have provided the only bit of competitiveness from Cork schools.

This year has seen St. Francis’s College in Rochestown, Hamilton High School in Bandon and Charleville all qualify for the quarter-finals of the Harty Cup, with Rochestown and Hamilton making the semi-finals. This is a huge positive for Cork hurling and it may be a turning point.

Simply being Cork isn’t enough in this day and age. A lot of teams are used to beating Cork nowadays so they must continue to invest time and money in their underage systems to ensure a brighter future. This year’s Harty Cup may be a sign of things to come as Cork are finally seeing the benefits of their new underage structures.

Pundit Arena, Sean Cremin.

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About Sean Cremin

Sean Cremin graduated from University College Cork with a Bachelor of Education in Sports Studies and PE. A self-proclaimed 'pure G.A.A head', Sean recently made the transition from spluttering offline to writing online. Sean loves nothing more than a good debate and still hopes for Tebow to return.