IT has almost gone under the radar that Cork begin this year’s hurling championship aiming for a third straight Munster title.
Not since 1984-86 has it been done by Cork, with the only other instance of it happening since then being Tipperary’s trio in the next three seasons after that, 1987-89 inclusive. Of course, the fact that neither of the last two wins has been followed by an All-Ireland title means that such an achievement isn’t lauded.
Another statistic which is likely to be referenced over the coming months, or at least as long as Cork remain in the championship, is the fact that the county has never gone through a full decade without coming out on top. There is something of a precedent in sneaking in one at the very end of a decade – it happened exactly a century ago, when Cork took the 1919 title, bridging a 16-year gap. This was also the first year that the county wore red jerseys.
Obviously, Patrick Horgan isn’t thinking of records like that when he’s sending frees over the bar and Cork’s fate in the championship won’t be determined by ancient history. It’s events in the recent past which will occupy supporters’ minds, not least the 13-point loss to Tipperary in the national league in March.
Perhaps the relative dead-rubber nature of that game and its rescheduling after being postponed the week before that are factors, and maybe it was just an off-day for Cork when everything clicked for Tipp, but it can’t be discounted after of Sunday.
We think, and hope, that Cork aren’t as bad as that, and since then there has been a chance to gear up properly for the championship, but the fact that clubs took precedent in April will have eaten into the available time, too.
Selection-wise, the biggest defensive question is who management will choose to take the place of Colm Spillane, who is ruled out with the latest in a litany of injuries, the Castlelyons man’s ill-luck stretching back the past part of a decade. Darren Browne of Kanturk is probably the best option, though the experience Stephen McDonnell or Eoin Cadogan may be favoured.
With Bandon’s Mike Cahalane not playing this year, the West Cork flag is flown by Newcestown’s Luke Meade (and honorary status given to Damien Cahalane, of course). Similar to how Cork’s three-in-a-row quest has gone under the radar, Meade’s contribution is often overlooked, though his contribution in last year’s Munster final against Clare finally earned him the
plaudits that were due.
The one major change to the Cork attack this year compared to last year is likely to be the restoration of Alan Cadogan to the number 13 shirt. Having missed all of the 2018 championship, the Douglas man’s return during the league was stop-start but he scored 1-2 in the county SHC opener against Bride Rovers and will give Cork something that they didn’t have last year.
His return increases the options available to the management and so does having Aidan Walsh back. The Kanturk man impressed during the league and he too has qualities not apparent among the rest of the attack, though one would expect him to be more of a plan B during the championship.
Being able to rotate is key, given the round-robin nature and with Horgan, Cadogan, captain Séamus Harnedy, Daniel Kearney, Conor Lehane , Walsh, Shane Kingston and Robbie O’Flynn (once he returns to fitness) present too, Meade may find that he is used as an impact substitute as well as starting games. The cliché of it being a 20-man game nowadays is never more true and Cork need to have sufficient depth available, as the extra-time semi-final defeat to Limerick last year proved.
The importance of the Tipp game at home is underlined by the fact that Cork’s next game is away to the All-Ireland champions Limerick. If they were to fail to beat Tipp, there is nothing attractive about having to head up the N20 to the Gaelic Grounds with a win essential, notwithstanding having triumphed there in the league.
That is the bearpit nature of the round-robin system and it makes for great entertainment for the neutrals. For those involved though, the margin for error is limited.