FOR the first time in a long time, the teams taking to the starting grid for the county SFC do so in the knowledge that big performances will be needed, not only to go far but also to preserve their status.
While the one-up, one-down promotion and relegation system operated for the best part of a decade meant that there was a cohort of clubs hanging near the precipice, knowing that one victory was required to ease worries, the last few years have seen a removal of that anvil above the head.
Instead, only teams who had gone without a win in one of the previous two campaigns were at the mercy of the hangman’s noose, with the upshot being that Aghada were the only side relegated and that was voluntary on the part of the East Cork club.
So it is that 18 clubs will begin their campaigns over the next two weekends, with six of those certain to be competing in the new second-tier senior A grade in 2020 following Tuesday’s decision by the county board to go with the change in system which sees four grades of 12 teams.
Speaking last week, county board secretary Kevin O’Donovan made the point that a leaner senior football championship would ensure that the winners of it would be primed ahead of the Munster club championship.
‘Where we’ve struggled is in the Munster club senior football and that’s no reflection on our teams but they’re just not battle-hardened,’ he said.
‘I think you’d have the same teams winning whether it’s 12, 17 or 19 teams at senior, but what 12 teams gives you is a tougher battle. It’s a sacrifice that has to be made.’
It’s hard to argue with that, given that the last time a Cork team other than Nemo Rangers won Munster was UCC in 1999, while Castlehaven in 2012 are the last non-Nemo Cork team to even make the provincial final. There probably won’t be a noticeable overnight improvement, but it has to be seen as a positive development.
To that end, how would the current mix of teams at senior level be assessed ahead of the 2019 championship, the last to be run under the ‘old’ format?
St Finbarr’s are the side wearing the crown, for the first time in 33 years, and like the Limerick hurlers, they have shown that one victory hasn’t softened their appetite for success as they sit top of the Division 1 league table, with just one defeat in six games.
With Michael Shields the oldest member of the team that won the county, there is no reason why they can’t be in the mix come the latter stages and, as ever, one would have to expect that Nemo Rangers will be the likeliest team to challenge them.
Nemo have won two of the last four county titles and the defeat to Castlehaven last year remains a mystery, an uncharacteristic off-day which is unlikely to be repeated any time soon. Recent U21 wins mean that they are well-stocked with talented players and they benefit from the aura of teams often being beaten before the ball is thrown in.
Last year’s beaten finalists Duhallow are in the nice position of being the first team through to the latter stages, having come through the divisions and colleges section, though their win over CIT – admittedly without Aidan Walsh – showed that they remain a work-in-progress.
Nevertheless, their scoring power is considerable, with a number of players who can post big totals on a given day. Ballincollig will also be there or thereabouts.
And what, then, of the West Cork contingent? Last year saw Castlehaven and Carbery Rangers reach the semi-finals, the Haven losing to Duhallow after two replays.
Ross, who start off against Ilen Rovers, will have been haunted by the failure to build on a four-point half-time lead in their clash against the Barrs, but this team’s obituary has been written after more than one latter-stage elimination.
Early league results have been mixed and they may not have huge squad depth, but, aided by results in recent years, they will be in the top 12 next year. Likewise, the Haven, who clash with Fermoy, can’t really afford injuries to key men but a fully fit Brian Hurley later in the competition will give them an extra dimension compared to last year.
Clonakilty had an encouraging 2018 but it was still short of where they would expect to be, while Valley Rovers, who play Nemo, have established themselves as a quarter-final team and must try to kick on from that.
The biggest challenge for Clon’s opponents Newcestown, who beat Aghada in a relegation play-off last year, is always combining senior in both codes while Ilen Rovers struggled last year but have a maturing crop of talented youngsters.
They too beat Aghada and so did O’Donovan Rossa, who meet Carrigaline. Skibb will feel they belong in the top 12, while Dohenys will target an opener against St Nicholas as a chance to get a pivotal year off to a positive start.
The clocks have gone forward and the longer evenings have finally arrived which can only mean one thing – the lawn mowers are out. A wealth of knowledge is on hand at Bandon Co-Op’s three stores in Bandon, Enniskeane and Kinsale thanks to each of their in-store experts who are there to share their vast experience