WIN or lose the experience of playing in the National Hurling League final won’t do a new and emerging Cork squad any harm at all, writes John Knox.
The Leesiders are only learning about themselves after charismatic manager, Jimmy Barry Murphy guided them on an unbeaten run through the competition, and the more big matches they get right now the better.
“It is good to be back chasing something again,” admitted elegant defender, Sean Og O hAilpin, who is enjoying a new lease of life in the colours after being recalled from exile from the panel.
“We would set out to be among the high rollers every year, but the last couple of years have been very lean. It is good to be back where we are. When I say back, I mean to be involved in the marquee games.
“The National Hurling League final compared to a championship game, is it as big? No. But for us it means progress. Being in the National Hurling League final is progress for this year.”
The Na Piarsaigh clubman was deemed surplus to requirement during the reign of the last management team, but once county favourite Barry Murphy got the top job he sent immediately for the 2005 All-Ireland winning captain to help add the balance of experience to the new squad he was creating.
Doing his bit
The Adonis like defender was thrilled to answer the call. He felt all along he had something to offer the county. Now he was doing his bit, again.
“All we are looking for, basically, are confidence boosters,” he told me when we spoke at the Centra ‘Brighten Up Your Day’ coaching day for young children at Nowlan Park. “Every time you win it helps bond things. Effectively this is a new side.
“From the Cork team I sort of grew up with and played with for a good few years it is much changed. There is no Joe Deane any more, no Diarmuid O’Sullivan, no Brian Corcoran.
“Basically I am sitting in a dressing-room with new lads like Darren Sweetnam, Conor Lehane, William Egan, Lorcán McLoughlin and so on. Outside of Cork these names probably wouldn’t be known. This is our new team.
“We have a mixture of experienced and young fellows. When you have a team like that a run of results help to knit things and give guys confidence, especially to the younger brigade. We all had to start somewhere.
“When you are a young lad starting off you are going to have question marks hanging over you as to whether you are good enough or not for inter-county level. I think that to date the guys have shown that they are well capable of surviving at inter-county level.
“The more they are exposed to a high level of competition the more they will find out about themselves. These games, they are in the League okay, but they help. By the time we play the final the championship will be six weeks away.
“I would prefer to be playing the League final than not. This will help our championship preparations.”
Sean reminded that if Cork hadn’t made the knock-out stages of the League they would have been faced with 10 weeks of having to work away at training before the start of the Munster championship. That would have left them chasing decent challenge matches, which are not easy to get.
Big games are priceless
“You can’t buy games like these against good opposition at an important time in the season,” he insisted. “Last week we played Tipperary. Next weekend we play Kilkenny. Such games are as good at 30 or 40 training sessions. We can only look forward to playing against opposition like that.”
He admitted that it was hard to keep the lid on the bubbling enthusiasm in Cork. However, the older hands in the squad were realistic enough to know that for all the kind words and kudos showered on the team in recent times, they had to beat the best teams, and do so consistently, before thinking you were anywhere near the finished product.
“You have to be able to compete against the best,” he continued. “On Sunday we are playing the All-Ireland champions. After that game we will have a reasonably enough idea of where we stand in the hurling order of things.
“We won’t know everything about ourselves, but the experience of playing in the League final will do our team no harm at all. As I keep on telling people, Kilkenny in the League, whether it is the first round, third round or the final are different to Kilkenny in August or September if you are lucky enough to meet them.
“They are a different animal. I have no doubt that Kilkenny, being the savage competitors they are, will be out to win. The story is as simple as that.”
We got to talking about Jimmy Barry Murphy and his role in the reshaping Cork and getting things back on track after a few indifferent seasons. I didn’t want him to look back. He didn’t either.
Sean Og was, naturally, a huge fan of the manager. He started his inter-county career under Barry Murphy. Now he expected to finish it in his charge.
Barry Murphy units all
“There are very few people in Cork who would have the impact Jimmy has had,” he opened. “Jimmy is a well respected figure. Outside of late Christy Ring he is probably the next most popular guy. Even people not associated with hurling if you mention Jimmy’s name they would know him.”
He said the former county hurler and footballer had helped bring people together, healed rifts and closed divisions in the county after a few uneasy seasons.
“I get the feeling that he has unified the people from all camps,” Sean Og added. “Everyone is rowing in behind the team. That is because of Jimmy. Jimmy breaks down all boundaries. He transcends generations and boundaries. He is a decent guy.
“It is great for me to be back. It is unbelievable. I thought my days in a Cork jersey were done when I was told two years ago I wasn’t part of the plans anymore. At 33 years of age you fear the worse.
“It is ironic that my first senior inter-county manger was Jimmy Barry. He gave me my start in 1996. I will probably end up finish up playing with him.”