It’s important when you’re coming from a low base that any improvement must be tempered by the memory of where you came from. But even with that in mind, it’s already better than last year. And I can say that without any danger of getting carried away by it. It was much more than the win too. It was the performance, the energy, the appetite and the structure.
As the game on Saturday night approached, my thoughts were drawn back to last year as I tried to put a finger on what was wrong. Looking back, the thing that stood out the most was the lack of energy. Even on last year’s opening day in Salthill there seemed to be a lethargy in the way Cork played, a sense that defeat at was inevitable.
I don’t think the league was taken seriously enough last year and Cork were haunted to survive such an error. Because, where we’re coming from now, we simply cannot afford to take anything for granted. But it appears that that lesson has been learned. The Munster league worked out as good as it could have and Saturday night, well Saturday night was like a breath of fresh air after a long winter of torment.
Daniel Kearney epitomised this feeling as much as anybody else. He never seemed himself last year. He seemed leaden-footed, bereft of confidence and a shadow of the player he had been previously. But he was back to his best against Clare. He was everywhere, hooking, chasing, harrying and using the ball well when in possession. It was great to see.
Of course, one of the main attractions of the game was to see how the new players bedded in, but the older players chose the perfect time to remind us that they remain central to the re-building process too. Anthony Nash had his best game in two years, Mark Ellis was also particularly impressive while Bill Cooper’s industry was equally as pleasing as Alan Cadogan’s brilliance.
There is no doubt that the exuberance of youth can be infectious and all of the debutants made a positive impact on the game. And, when five of them are being blooded at the same time, you have to be very happy with that. David Griffin has a doggedness to him that is essential for any inside back, Mark Coleman’s poise and touch is wonderful while Darragh Fitzgibbon’s pace is electric. Luke Meade set the tone from the start with his work rate and Shane Kingston was always looking to be involved.
What was most pleasing about all five of them, however, was their sheer appetite to be involved. None of them were sitting back and waiting for it to happen. They were all willing to work hard for the ball and for the team. Of course, that should be the bedrock of any team but it is something Cork have struggled with at times over the past few years. Yes, there’s a rawness to all of them that is only to be expected but they will be better for Saturday night’s experience.
There’s more to be thrown into the mix too. Conor Lehane, Damien Cahalane and Luke O’Farrell were absent while Cormac Murphy and Lorcán McLoughlin were on the bench. Chris O’Leary and Robbie O’Flynn helped swell the U-21 involvement to seven. This all bodes well too, competition for places is always necessary and healthy.
It was far from a perfect performance, thankfully (it is only February, after all), and everything must be considered with the caveat that Clare were very disappointing. When I saw Tony Kelly named to start I was expecting a really tough night out. But they seemed much further behind in their preparations. Their priorities are different to Cork’s I suppose. Still though, they had too many goal opportunities and plenty of wides. But all in all, it was a comfortable night out, and I can’t remember the last one of them we’ve had. It’ll be enjoyed for what it is.
It was either Eddie or Willie O’Connor of Kilkenny that I heard saying once that “the smallest hurling field in the world is in between your two ears”. It is an often underestimated fact. Whatever nights Cork are training this week, they’ll be meeting up with a spring in their step. They should be feeling a bit better about themselves. The players who missed out will be eager to be involved. There’s a bit of competition for places. They will all be looking forward to the visit of Dublin this Saturday night. I know I am.