JAMES Masters believes the current Cork senior panel is the most competitive in the four seasons he has been involved.
That’s a strong statement to make considering the 2016 All-Ireland winning team included Briege Corkery, Rena Buckley, Bríd Stack and Deirdre O’Reilly.
But what Masters has seen this year is enough for him to say that the 2019 panel is the strongest he has seen.
‘I got involved in 2016 and we had a serious panel that season. Last year I felt we didn’t have as strong a panel and in the four years that I have been involved this is by far the most competitive,’ Masters says ahead of Sunday’s Division 1 league final against in-form Galway.
There are a few reasons why the battle for places on the Cork team is so competitive. Top of the list is the development of the young players who have impressed during their league and strengthened the depth of the squad.
Valley Rovers’ Eimear Kiely has started all eight Division 1 league games this season at wing back. Her twin sister Daire has started seven and came on as a sub in the other.
O’Donovan Rossa’s Laura O’Mahony, who was a Cork minor last season, has started five of the eight games, including the two recent wins against Dublin. Beara’s Clare O’Shea, a Leaving Cert student and also a minor in 2018, has started at corner back in the last two games and was a used sub in the two before that. Kinsale forward Sadhbh O’Leary has put her hand up as another option, starting four league games and being brought on in another three.
The younger players, especially those coming out of minor, were put on a strength and conditioning programme over the winter with coach Kevin Tattan – and that hard work is paying off.
‘It’s been about the development of the younger players for us,’ Masters says.
‘Ideally, you want to develop two or three every year but there have been three or four who have come in now, like Laura, Clare and the two Kielys, who have laid down a marker.
‘I would have no issue with them now being in a championship team whereas if we didn’t play them in the league you would be a bit unsure when it came down to the crunch – but we know now they can do it.
‘They have done it against the best in the country and that’s a great boost. They have stepped up, made that jump from minor to senior which is a big one to make, and are in the position now that other girls have to come and get their place. They have set the standard.’
Another big addition to the panel this season is the returning Niamh Cotter from Beara. She missed last season as she was studying in Canada. She has been one of Cork’s best and most consistent performers during the league so far. Cotter has scored 4-7, including goals against Tipperary, Donegal, Mayo and Dublin.
‘Niamh has been a massive addition. In the semi-final against Dublin she was man-marked wherever she was on the pitch. I know from the game in Mallow against Dublin that Mick Bohan was seriously impressed by her. She will get extra attention in games now but that’s only a credit to her,’ says Masters, who is also delighted with the competition for places in the Cork attack.
‘We have eight or nine forwards that are fighting for six positions,’ the Cork selector points out.
Cork are loaded in attack. They’ve racked up some big figures – 3-16 against Donegal, 4-15 against Mayo, 5-17 against Monaghan, 1-18 against the Dubs in the semi-final.
Orla Finn leads the scoring charts with 1-50 (35f), including her 13-point haul in the semi-final win against Dublin. Allihies’ Aine Terry O’Sullivan, who is suspended for the final after her straight red in the semi-final, has consistently chipped in and has 1-13. Cork have Ciara O’Sullivan, Doireann O’Sullivan (who missed the semi-final), Niamh Cotter, Laura O’Mahony, Orlagh Farmer, Libby Coppinger, the returning Rhona Ní Bhuachalla (who also missed the semi), Eimear Scally, super sub Saoirse Noonan and Sadhbh O’Leary all vying for those six starting berths in the attack.
On the squad in general, Masters noted: ‘This year we dropped numbers on the panel. Last year and previous years we had 33 or 34 but now we have dropped it to 25 or 26. All of a sudden the standard in training goes up. The pace goes up, the tackling goes up, the intensity goes up. Training has improved and it’s getting the best out of players.’
Despite a ropey start when they lost two of their first three league games, Cork have hit their stride and the back-to-back wins against reigning league and All-Ireland champions Dublin will do wonders for their confidence, especially the semi-final win that went to extra time. Masters says Cork stepped it up another level that day, and now they need to reach the same heights against a Galway team that topped the Division 1 table after the group stages.
‘When we got to the league semi-final I was delighted because it gave us one extra game at a really high level – and there was extra time too. That will help to develop us and bring us on.
‘Now we are playing Galway and they are the form team in the country right now. They’re at a high level and will be massive challenge, just like the Dublin game.’
With the Munster championship and All-Ireland series to come, the bigger battles await, but right now Masters feels Cork are in a good place, and there’s more to come.