Goals cost the Cork U21s in last year’s All-Ireland final and it was the exact same on Saturday evening in the Gaelic Grounds.
They leaked a goal to Billy Seymour after 19 seconds in this U20 decider and in the next seven minutes coughed up another three. Down 4-1 to 0-4 the game was effectively over at that juncture because the Premier were hurling more fluidly, defending far more aggressively, linking coherently and just moving with huge confidence in general.
Denis Ring and his selectors deployed their best man-markers on specific marquee forwards but if anything that unbalanced the rearguard in the opening stages. What couldn’t be legislated for was the Rebels’ heavy touch, perhaps down to nerves, which directly led to 1-3. James Keating, a rock in other matches, were under pressure throughout, while Seán O’Leary Hayes’ trademark swagger was curbed.
Cork simply never looked like making up for their woeful start. Despite a fourth-quarter rally, when a brilliant goal from Tommy O’Connell, who was later sent off for a second yellow, ignited the Leeside faithful briefly.
Missed goal opportunities by Seán Twomey and Evan Sheehan, whose shot was saved brilliantly, allowed Tipp to settle again to add insult to injury they snatched a late fifth goal through sub Cathal Bourke.
Shane O’Regan, particularly, and Brian Turnbull, in patches, were menacing up top but Cork had to chase goals early while Tipp could afford to drop off and protect the D when they weren’t in possession. Ryan Walsh rifled over two lovely first-half scores and Robert Downey pulled down a couple of puck-outs but the collective belief wasn’t there to turn the tide after the nightmare opening spell.
Both counties travelled in huge numbers for another Old Firm showdown, Tipp buzzing after their senior triumph and anticipating another coronation, Cork desperate for a first major All-Ireland since 2005.
Liam Sheedy entered the Mackey Stand an hour before throw-in to a rousing reception from the Blue and Gold horde. The Rebel faithful were more nervous. Last year’s U21 final loss when they had been unbackable favourites against the Munster runners-up stung deeply.
While Cork were U17 All-Ireland champions two years ago that was a one-off competition because of the change at minor. The more high-profile 2017 decider ended in a loss to Galway, followed by last year’s debacle when a host of big names underperformed.
Unfortunately, there was no redemption here, just a ruthless lesson about hurling at the highest level.
What supporters are wondering now is if we’re ever going to land meaningful silverware again, especially at senior. The hope is that a fistful of these young hurlers will push through in 2020 under Kieran Kingston or whoever replaces John Meyler.
Certainly, we saw flashes of quality from Ger Mellerick even if he had his hands full on Jake Morris, while Turnbull has enough credit in the bank to get a few runs in the league.
O’Regan remains a young hurler on the rise but is U20 again next year and will benefit from another campaign in that grade. He’ll feature for Imokilly next Sunday in their SHC clash with Midleton and it’ll be interesting to see how the Watergrasshill club man motors in that.
Conor O’Callaghan, the Roches, Eoin and Brian, and Daire Connery are also underage in 2020 and there’s plenty more to come from them as well.
Robert Downey was one of Cork’s few decent performers, one heavy touch apart, and showed leadership by securing his share of possession and taking on opportunities. With more conditioning, as despite his height he’s light and only turning 20 shortly, he will be a key senior in time.
That’s for the future.
For now, Cork remain in hurling purgatory, competitive, but not cynical, physical or deadly enough to become champions. Denis Ring and his selectors will get plenty of flak for losing a third All-Ireland final in a row but to somehow blame them for all of Rebel hurling’s woes is a cop-out.
The game on Leeside has never been stronger in terms of underage numbers but needs a figurehead to co-ordinate the various county teams, the equivalent of Conor Counihan, who is overseeing football.