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All-Ireland final place at stake today - but can Waterford or Cork become regular contenders?

Joe Deane and Tony Browne assess the chances of both counties remaining at the top table in the coming years.

EVEN IN THIS age of wall-to-wall media coverage in the inter-county game, it’s refreshing to get a reminder that a team can come into the championship and blow apart all the preconceived expectations.

Patrick Horgan with Noel Connors Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Just ask Cork. In Kieran Kingston’s debut campaign as boss, they lost all bar one league game and limped out of the qualifiers that summer against a pre-Davy Wexford side. Cork finished third in the league this spring, achieving wins over Clare, Waterford and Tipperary before losing a quarter-final to Limerick by points.

In many ways it was the perfect result for Kingston’s men, who entered the championship with zero expectations hovering over them. He handed starting debuts to five youngsters for the Munster quarter-final against the reigning All-Ireland champions, and so began a wild ride to the provincial title.

“The manner of how they’ve played has been superb,” says Cork legend Joe Deane.

“They’re very positive and they seem to be enjoying their hurling. I’ve been pleasantly surprised.”

Joe Dean Former Cork fan favourite Joe Deane Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

The Rebels are among one of hurling’s traditional three major powerhouses, but the Liam MacCarthy hasn’t resided on the banks of the Lee since 2005, although they did appear in the 2013 final.

In the meantime, Kilkenny and Tipperary have dominated All-Ireland final day in the last decade, while Cork, Clare, Limerick and Waterford have each made it once to the last two on one occasion.

Galway are back in the final for the third time since 2012. Their starting 15 against Tipperary last Sunday had an average age of 25.5, which suggests they’ll be around challenging for the next few years at least.

But while talismen like Tipperary’s Seamus Callanan and Galway’s Joe Canning approach their 30s and Kilkenny’s form dipping, 2017 has brought renewed hope that other sides are poised break into the top bracket.

Tony Browne Three-time All-Star Tony Browne Source: James Crombie/INPHO

What about the Rebels and the Deise, who meet in today’s second semi-final? Can they become regular visitors to All-Ireland finals over the next five years?

Tony Browne played in a magnificent Waterford team in the mid-2000s, who were unfortunate to run into the greatest team of all-time in the form of Kilkenny. He believes the landscape is wide-open now.

“I think the opportunity to win All-Irelands is really there for everyone now,” Browne says.

“A lot of it boils down to timing. I think a lot of teams in my time couldn’t make the breakthrough, particularly against that Kilkenny team. The difference is now the gap has really closed.

“Not just Waterford, not just Galway, not just Cork. The opportunity to win All-Irelands in the next couple of years is really up for grabs whereas in my time you could nearly name who was going to win it early on in the year.”

Deane agrees: “Once Kilkenny are beaten every other fella who’s putting on an inter-county jersey they’re going to training the following Tuesday thinking, ‘we’ve a realistic chance of winning it.’”

Seamus Harnedy with Shane Fives Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Waterford are appearing in their third semi-final in-a-row, and although this current crop have been on the go a couple of years, the average age of their starting team against Wexford stands at 25.1.

Key men like Tadhg de Burca (23), Jamie Barron (24), Pauric Mahony (25), Austin Gleeson (22), Jake Dillon (24), Shane Bennett (20) and Stephen Bennett (21) can be expected to remain at this level for another seven to 10 years.

“There’s a nice balance about this team,” continues Browne. “Very skilful. A lot of the lads have won minor and U-21 All-Irelands.

“You can see where they’ve no fear of Croke Park and big stadiums or anything like that. The people talking about the difference between my team and the present team at the moment is that they have a good depth within the panel.

“You can see that the last game with Maurice coming on and Brian O’Halloran and these guys. They seem to have a good, strong panel at the moment.”

Michael Breen and Mark Coleman Flying Cork wing-back Mark Coleman Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

The nature of the Rebels’ recent Munster triumph highlights their quality. The introduction of four U21s – Mark Coleman (19), Darragh Fitzgibbon (20), Luke Meade (20) and Shane Kingston (19) – lit a fire under their season.

They’ve got an average age of 25, the lowest of any of the four semi-finalists. Outside of Anthony Nash, Patrick Horgan and Stephen McDonnell, every starter is aged 27 or under.

“There seems to be great belief in the dressing room,” says Deane. “The younger guys in particular who’ve come in, they’ve led the line and the older guys have really rocked in behind them the last few games.

“There’s always been the nucleus of a very good team there. The couple of new players have really added to it.

“We’ve won a few games, to sustain it at senior level for a long time takes a big panel, which I think we’re a bit off at the moment. For us to seriously compete at an ongoing basis you need to have 20 guys who are up to the standard playing well every week. That’s going to take time.”

Cork stand for national anthem Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Clare’s failure to kick-on after stunning the country in 2013 is a note of caution for both counties, although the Banner might simply have too many small, wristy players in their ranks.

The Deise have cemented their status as a top four side under the reign of Derek McGrath, and the rate of underage talent emerging in Cork is only likely to continue over the coming years.

“Cork are putting in a lot of work at underage level and there are good players coming through,” adds Deane.

It’ll be fascinating to see how the hurling landscape plays out over the next few years.

Today might be an early indication of which county is ready to make the leap.

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