Cork continue building as they plan another assault on hurling’s summit

Keegan’s addition to coaching ticket a boost while Keane’s arrival increases options

When Cork and Clare meet tonight in the opening game of the new hurling season, chances are that last summer's frantic qualifier will flash through the minds of both Brian Lohan and Kieran Kingston.

A dusty July Saturday played in front of a limited crowd, the second round knock-out tie was error-strewn, wonderfully exciting and the result hinged on an injury-time goalmouth save by Cork's Patrick Collins from Clare's Tony Kelly, who was in full-genius mode for the afternoon.

In the end, Cork weathered a ferocious Clare second-half rally not through experience but youth, with Shane Barrett firing 1-1 from play after Kingston sent him in and Alan Connolly striking a crucial point.

Afterwards, Lohan complimented Cork and noted that the forces were gathering on Leeside.

“The graph only seems to be going one way. Every single result they seem to be winning. Just doing a lot of things right and credit to them, they are a great county.”

It seemed apt that the game was played in the Gaelic Grounds, home of the All-Ireland champions and a physical reminder that, whatever happened here, Limerick loomed.

This was just a week after they had delivered that majestic and silencing Munster final display against Tipperary. So it went. Cork escaped that claustrophobic afternoon and advanced to the All-Ireland final.

The entire country watched on with a combination of awe and trepidation as Limerick swept them aside. Suddenly, the assumption that the Kilkenny team of a decade ago was a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon seemed previous.

It was a tough afternoon for the Rebels and Kingston was the first to acknowledge Limerick's superiority on the day. The immediate experience was crushing but it didn't detract from the general truth of Brian Lohan's midsummer observation.

But can Cork go one step further this year? Securing the services of Gary Keegan as performance director is further evidence of Cork's intent. Kingston has already assembled a very deep coaching staff, with former All-Ireland winning player Pat Mulcahy and Noel Furlong, the All-Ireland winning minor manager, coming in. Diarmuid O'Sullivan has stayed on and Donal O'Grady, whose influence on Cork hurling is inestimable, has also returned.

Formidable team

It's a formidable team. Keegan's track record is formidable and it is easy to see why Kingston recruited his services. Scroll through any interview from John Kiely or any of the Limerick players and it is only a matter of time before they point to the extraordinary influence psychologist Caroline Currid has had on their group.

Keegan's fingerprints are also traceable on notable success stories: he was drafted in by Jim Gavin during Dublin's ascendant years, he worked with the Tipperary hurlers during their All-Ireland-winning season and Andy Farrell turned to Keegan after the Ireland rugby squad sought to start again after the 2019 World Cup.

Part of the challenge for all hurling counties lies in hurdling the psychological impact of Limerick’s performances over the past two seasons. They’ve imposed themselves as a kind of Beecher’s Brook on the championship circuit.

Squads change. Among the Cork players to bow out in the off-season were Bill Cooper, Eoin Cadogan and Colm Spillane. And among the new additions will be Mark Keane, the dual player whose performances for Ballygiblin this winter caught the eye.

Keane has already established himself in Cork lore by scoring the last-minute goal which knocked Kerry out of the Munster – and All-Ireland – football championship in the winter of 2020 before returning to Collingwood to play Australian Rules. But after a few sessions with the hurlers, he has decided to stay.

“We liked what we saw and he obviously liked what he saw as well so we are delighted to have him,” Kingston said recently at a Cork media event.

Keane will play for Ballygiblin in the All-Ireland junior club final in Croke Park today. But over the season his physical stature could potentially give Cork an obvious focal point in a forward unit that struggled to cope with the gargantuan size and relentless go-forward mentality of Limerick's back six.

The return of Conor Lehane, after a terrific club season with Midleton, will deepen the reserve of experience in a squad which will be shaped by Cork's recent under-age successes. Mark Coleman has been appointed captain, identified by Kingston as a natural leader and a player who at 24 is a perfect link between both the established and new members of the squad.

During last year’s restricted league, Cork were a mere 10 minutes from winning their first league title since 1998 on the day they played Galway in the final round.

A combination of results meant they finished 5th in their group. Cork have never made a pretence that the league is a priority: they’ve won the competition just twice in the last 40 years, finishing runners-up four times in the same period. Nailing down a team with a more durable defensive structure to substantiate the speed and skill and potential coursing through the squad is the chief priority over the league.

Getting some game time between themselves and the memory of last year’s All-Ireland final tonight will be a welcome beginning in Páirc Uí Chaoimh this evening.

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