WHAT are we to make of it all?
The distance might have been shortened, but there are sill many miles to travel before we can contemplate the return of the McCarthy Cup to Leeside.
There is no doubt that in reaching a league final, performing with a lot of distinction against Tipperary in Munster and in winning three games thereafter in the qualifiers, progress has to be reported.
Quite a lot of new, young blood was introduced along the route and it won’t be until further down the line that we’ll derive the benefits of their participation this season.
Players like Chris Joyce, Darren Sweetnam, Conor Lehane, Daniel Kearney, Jamie Coughlan, Steve Moylan and Damien Cahalane will have learned a lot over the past few months, Killian Murphy too, he was outstanding for Erin’s Own on Saturday night against Killeagh, they will have learned too though that league and championship hurling is vastly different and that upper body strength is now a key component in any players’ make-up.
But they will be a year older and a year wiser in 2013 and if they can learn from last Sunday’s defeat and the season in general, they will be much more influential players.
In the aftermath of any championship knock-out defeat there will be inevitable criticism of the personnel involved, players and management, that is the nature of the games.
A number of players, particularly those in attack, would have left Croke Park last Sunday not happy with their return, but they were faced, in particular, by an excellent Galway half-back line of Niall O’Donoghue, Tony Óg Regan and Johnny Coen.
The game has evolved a lot from the days when a player held down his post for nearly the entire match and there’s so much more movement and switching of positions now.
But, at the end of the day, you have to have a nailed down centre-forward and a natural full-forward.
Many different players have featured in those two spots over the past six months, but are we any closer to having automatic choices for the number 11 and number 14 jerseys?
Maybe we are talking old school here, but you need a very strong, physical presence in those positions and Jimmy Barry Murphy would be fully aware of how influential Fergal McCormack was for him back in 1999.
We can go back a lot further to the days of Tim Crowley, Mick Malone and Willie Walsh when their influence on the 40 was massive and their physicality a huge factor.
Of course it’s a vastly changed game now and nobody holds down a position for that long, but you need a dominant force in those two key roles, Cork’s search continues.
The philosophy of the current management team will always favour skill over physicality, but reconciling the two must surely be more prioritised now.
Aggression is now a huge part of the modern game.
The most disappointing aspect of last Sunday was the fact that Galway were nervous and edgy and were nowhere near the force that they were against Kilkenny.
And because of that Cork had the opportunity to really send shivers down their spines, but the lack of a return from the attack as a unit decreed that it was always going to be Galway’s day.
If Cork had matched their best performance of the year against Tipperary here they might now be looking forward to the All-Ireland final.
Their lack of physical strength is still a factor and, whilst players are reaching a certain level in their performance, it is still below what’s required in the months of August and September.
There will be inevitable speculation now surrounding the future of some players, the elder statesmen in particular.
While the younger players will be that year older and wiser, others like Seán Óg Ó hAilpín, Niall McCarthy, John Gardiner, Tom Kenny and Brian Murphy will have grown longer in the tooth.
Gardiner saw very little championship time this season and he will have been very disappointed with that and might wonder about continuing, although to be fair to the defence last Sunday, it gave a decent account of itself.
The decision to bring back Seán Óg was definitely justified and, given his fitness levels maybe he’ll do a Tony Browne on it.
Injury hampered Niall McCarthy’s year and there will be a poser about his continuation too.
He certainly was a loss on Sunday in the half-forward line where his physical presence was badly missed and he’s one player not wholly suited to being brought on.
Tom Kenny too came in from the cold and his consistency over the past number of games was notable.
Looking to the future and, whilst Cork would now be ranked fourth in the pecking order behind Kilkenny, Tipp and Galway, it is going to be very difficult to travel the extra few miles that will be required to really get in among them.
And they must watch their back in Munster too with Clare and Limerick moving ever closer and with their superior conveyor belt of young material coming through from successful minor and U21 teams, they will be far more forceful.
Cork have no such conveyor belt because of the lack of success in those grades for too long now.
And that is going to have to change too, the minor return from this year was simply not acceptable in a county the size of Cork and the statistic of Kerry being the only team Cork have beaten in Munster in two years is quite staggering.
Now the focus switches to the club scene and trying to find a few more players that might catch the eye of the selectors.
Over the past two weekends this observer has watched Ballymartle oust Courcey Rovers and Erin’s Own oust Killeagh from the SHC.
From a forward viewpoint, the two best players one saw were Cork sub keeper Darren McCarthy for Ballymartle and Eoghan Murphy for Erin’s Own.
Maybe keeping an eye on McCarthy as a forward rather than a reserve custodian might be an option.
For now, at intercounty season’s end, the message is simple: progress made, a lot more required with reason for cautious optimism going forward.
Progress made but plenty of work left to do
WHAT are we to make of it all?