THIS year saw the introduction of a new system in the Munster MFC and it is a change that has benefited Cork.
In both 2017 and 2018, the Rebels lost out to Kerry at the provincial semi-final stage, with no second chance afforded them while the Kingdom went on to win fourth and fifth successive All-Irelands in the grade.
This time around, the Munster ‘old firm’ were placed in the second phase of a revamped competition, with the other four counties playing off for the chance to join them in a round-robin system, with the top two then meeting in the final.
While Cork lost to Kerry by 16 points in Páirc Uí Rinn, a win over Clare earned them a spot in the decider and the second clash with the Kingdom resulted in a 3-14 to 2-14 defeat in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
Reaching the Munster final meant Cork advanced to the All-Ireland quarter-finals and a win over Monaghan a fortnight ago has them in Saturday’s semi-final against Mayo in Croke Park (3pm). For manager Bobbie O’Dwyer, the chance to play football throughout the summer has been of huge benefit to Cork.
‘It’s one thing that we were determined to try to make sure that the lads were playing football for as long as we possible could this year,’ he says.
‘We will have played nearly as many championship games this year as the Cork minors have in the previous three years combined.
‘Playing games is how young fellas learn and I can even see the difference in the squad over the course of the last six weeks or so.
‘Young people soak in the information and, obviously, the further on you go in the championship, the more the tactical side comes into it and the players are learning. They’ve never been exposed to this level of structure and it’s great for them.’
Cork have improved game on game, even allowing for the aberration of the first Kerry game.
‘Not wanting to create any excuses but the injury front was something that put us under pressure earlier on in the year,’ O’Dwyer says.
‘For the first round against Kerry, we were without a third of the team that played in the quarter-finals, so it’s good to get everybody back.
‘The bigger picture though is the experience that they are getting. Munster was the only province that didn’t have a round-robin situation so all of the other teams were getting a lot of games in before the knockout stage.
‘Unfortunately, for Cork over the last couple of years, the winner-take-all nature of the championship didn’t work in our favour but you can see the difference this year. It’s fantastic, it’s a great opportunity for the young lads.’
Last time out, Cork made light of a break of more than a month to beat the Ulster champions Monaghan by 12 points in Portlaoise. O’Dwyer was pleased to see his team show such character.
‘It’s always in your head, we had had a five-week gap in between,’ he says.
‘You never know from game to game. Because we were seeing them all the time in training, we felt they were in a good place, you could see the incremental improvement.
‘But until such time as you test it, it’s one thing to do it in training and another to do it in the heat of championship battle.
‘Obviously, they’re going to have to improve again, another certain amount of percentage points, for the game against Mayo but that’s the nature of sport.’
The Croke Park factor could be intimidating, but O’Dwyer hopes it can be inspiring.
‘Again, you’re working with a super group of young people,’ he says.
‘I think Keith Ricken put it very well recently, the young lads actually inspire us. They don’t have the worries and fears of somebody who’s a bit more experienced or whatever.
‘They just want to play their game of football and it’s wonderful to see inside in training, the lads pushing each other. The squad system works so well with them, they work so hard to aspire to be the best they can be.
‘Of course they’ll be nervous, I’ve no doubt of that and we’ll work with them, but it’s not the fear an adult has, it’s a different situation.’