THE MANTRA is ‘it’s only the league’ — yet there is a real buzz about Cork hurling again, a wave of excitement that could carry the Rebels through a thrilling summer.
Corkonians are right to be ultra cautious about the league. In 2002 they endured a dismal championship after losing the final to Kilkenny, which in turn triggered the first strike, while in 2010 Galway had one of those days when they’re untouchable in the league final, and though Denis Walsh’s side almost won Munster the campaign ended on the sour note of a shelling from the Cats.
Will this season pan out differently? Kilkenny won doubles in 2006 and 2009. Other sides, Dublin last year, Tipp 2008 and Waterford in ‘07 maximised their spring exploits come summer too.
Hopefully Cork can now do the same, and there is certainly a tangible belief on Leeside again.
It’s the JBM effect for starters. He’s a living Rebel legend, an over-used term perhaps, but he has the respect of the players and supporters, and has increased their expectations without anybody getting carried away.
Even though Denis Walsh did an under-rated job in overhauling what had become a stale team — Stephen McDonnell, William Egan, Lorcán McLoughlin and Luke O’Farrell were pitched in against Tipp in Munster championship last May — he didn’t have the presence of Jimmy Barry-Murphy.
Don’t underestimate how crucial that has been to turning around Cork’s fortunes. A series of near-misses at minor and U21 level in recent seasons, along with the seniors’ woes, drained the confidence out of Cork hurling.
It may yet turn out to be misplaced, and Munster silverware needs to be collected at every level before we can declare Cork are back (it’s been since 2006 in minor and senior, ‘07 at U21), but the county believes again.
And a bit of cockiness is an ingredient in all decent Rebel hurling outfits.
There’s more substance than that to the revival. JBM might be the front man but he assembled a quality back-room team.
Ger Cunningham would have been a viable manager in his own right, is a respected coach, a link to 2003-2006, and already worked with most of the youngsters on the panel through his time as UCC fresher boss.
Recruiting him lay down a real marker about where Jimmy was heading.
The other selectors have their own strengths, Johnny Crowley is vastly experience, Kieran Kingston brings granite toughness from Tracton, and Seanie McGrath knows the score with the likes of Darren Sweetnam and Conor Lehane from his stint with the minors.
Bringing Dave Matthews, a former 800-metre Olympian, onboard as fitness consultant has paid off to date too, with Cork powering through the final stages of every league game. The Rebels trained ferociously to be tuned in from the first ball this spring, so it will be interesting to see if other sides close the gap in the coming months.
Kildare native Matthews gave on interview with The Irish Times last September about his views on the physical requirements for inter-county football, which led to JBM putting a call in when he was re-appointed.
Matthews might not have known a whole pile about the Cork hurlers at the time but he has them hopping off the ground right now.
That there is a clutch of prodigious youngsters helps. They underachieved at minor and U21 for a variety of reasons, but Sweetnam, Lehane, McDonnell, Egan and McLoughlin have the raw talent as good as the best in Tipp and Kilkenny, while the ‘07 U21s — Eoin Cadogan, Pa Cronin, Pat Horgan, Shane O’Neill, Cathal Naughton and Paudie O’Sullivan — are now fronting up. It offers hope that Cork can cope without Donal Óg on-field leadership.
In the first coming of JBM in the late ‘90s, the league title of 1998 was a stepping stone on the road to recovery.
At the outset of this season the thought that he could repeat the feat with a new crop of young Rebels was viewed as too fanciful.
It doesn’t seem quite so outlandish now, but of course after Diarmuid O’Sullivan held the league aloft in ‘98 it took another 12 months before that league investment paid off in championship.