It’s that time of year again as the Munster Hurling Championship kicks into gear on Sunday with Cork and Waterford doing battle in Thurles. This weekend’s match may lack the stardust of their mid-noughties encounters, but it is an intriguing contest nonetheless as we view two counties in completely different stages of development.
A new Waterford team setting out on the road finds itself in the warpath of a Cork side that were beaten All-Ireland finalists at the end of two epic encounters last autumn and feel they haven’t gotten just desserts. For Waterford manager Derek McGrath, this season looks to be about blooding new players to battle harden them for down the line; a Cork team in progress since 2010 and again under the direction of the legendary Jimmy Barry-Murphy is all about the now.
It has cropped up a few times in the media this spring and once again this week in an Irish Independent interview with selector Seanie McGrath that the Cork hurlers are feeling a little underappreciated. While they might feel that way having been only a puck of a ball from ultimate glory last September, they are not at the forefront of any betting book or being put forward by many pundits as likely All-Ireland victors come September and can be freely backed at 7/1 to lift the Liam McCarthy Cup.
It was, as is often the way with these things all about the champions in the aftermath of the replayed All-Ireland final and such was the euphoria surrounding an exceptional looking young Clare side, with what they had just done and what they could go on to do, the achievement of a pretty inexperienced Cork team was a little lost amid it all. The point that McGrath was making was that Cork must have gotten an awful lot right to push Clare so close and could well be an excellent side themselves by proximity. Cork have every reason to believe that they too have their best days in front of them, and that they can land the big one; and to gain due recognition amongst their own and in the media, they will have to deliver the ultimate prize as being gallant losers has never been a tag that sat easily with the Cork hurlers.
The Rebels’ league form has been indifferent, outwitted tactically when throwing away a big lead in drawing against fourteen man Limerick on the opening night, they scarcely looked in better shape when scraping past Laois and despite winning the rest of their games, they owe their promotion from 1B as much to Limerick slipping up against Antrim. Cork are not a team that one would readily associate with being sharp for the early stages of the National League however and they showed an awful lot more in going down by just 3 points in a goal fest of a quarter-final against Tipperary. Cork shipped 3-25 that day, but responded with 4-19 and the match will have served them well as preparation for Championship. The sharpness of the Tipp attack would not have been something they would have come across earlier in the spring while campaigning in 1B and Barry-Murphy will feel that his charges will be better positioned to cope should they meet Tipp later on in the campaign. More recent signs have looked better with Cork having rattled off three challenge victories on the spin against Limerick, Wexford and Dublin with some experimentation taking place.
This is an already pretty good Cork team that has been added to over the winter with a trio of footballers throwing their support behind the hurlers and giving the dual player existence a go. The long-term merits of such a move can be debated another time, but for now, it is certain that the considerable talents of Aidan Walsh, Damien Cahalane and Alan Cadogan have added substantially to the cause.
Walsh’s hurling abilities are well known from his sparkling Munster campaign with the Cork U-21’s in 2011 and with his hurling having come on a tonne since the start of the league; the Kanturk man’s fielding, athleticism and ability to pick off scores gives Cork a top-class partner to the hard-running Daniel Kearney at centre-field. Walsh could also pop up in the half-forward line and could add massive ball winning presence in that area. Cork look in better stead to win ball around there this year with Patrick Cronin and talismanic scoring-threat Seamus Harnedy likely to interchange between inside and outside lines, the duo could act as the perfect foil to unleash the scoring potential of Patrick Horgan, Conor Lehane and Alan Cadogan. Horgan would likely have been player of the year last season had Cork beaten Clare and has been a blue chip player in the forward division for some time now, meanwhile Lehane unleashed at wing forward where he can use his pace and timing to get on to breaks looks a top-class forward in the making himself reminiscent of Ben O’Connor who played that role so cleverly for so long. Cadogan gives the inside line even more pace and directness and it will be interesting to see how Noel Connors fares against a player who has impressed in everything he has done with the hurlers so far.
In the full-back line, Seamus Callinan had his share of joy against Damien Cahalane in the League quarter final, but Cahalane never let the talented Tipp forward get goal-side of him and Callinan failed to find the net in a game where plenty others were doing so. Cahalane has pace and aggression, his sharpness will have come on a chunk since then. He is well suited to full-back play and he releases Shane O’Neill and Stephen McDonnell (both highly-tried at number three) to their more natural positions in the corners. The cork full-back line was made to look bad against Clare, but Croke park is made for their lightning fast, fluid style and it might be that Cork were made to look worse than they were. In the half-backline, Lorcan McLoughlin has successfully transferred from midfield and has benefited from seeing more of the game in front of him getting onto an amount of ball. He can help see newcomer Mark Ellis through his first championship start in the pivotal number six role where he has impressed in recent challenge games along with Christopher Joyce. The talented William Egan is also an option here off the line.
Waterford could be set for a tough afternoon but should be competitive with Kevin Moran and Michael Brick Walsh likely to sit deep in an effort to protect the full-back line. Pauric Mahony will have to take on a lot of responsibility at centre-forward and Shane Walsh may have to rediscover his best form for Waterford to get close. Injuries and a spate of retirements have hit them and created the chance for young players to be handed positions in the starting fifteen. Liam Lawlor returns to give some experience at the edge of the square but he may not stand up to the pace Cork have inside if he is not protected well enough. Injuries rule out Daragh Fives, Richie Foley, Jamie Barron, Stephen Molumphy, Stephen Bennett, Brian O’Halloran, Philip Mahony and Stephen Daniels. Shane O’Sullivan misses out through suspension while Cork have a clean bill of health bar Luke O’Farrell and dual-star Eoin Cadogan. In the circumstances, Cork should take this with a bit to spare.
Neill Dennehy, Pundit Arena.