NOBODY said it was going to be easy.
Cork are a more rounded, balanced and confident team than they were before Jimmy Barry-Murphy came in — helped by the ongoing development of a tasty group of youngsters, many of whom were blooded by Denis Walsh last year.
However they are still some bit short of the standard set by Tipp and Kilkenny, who collide next Sunday in a semi-final that will be more intense and aggressive than Cork-Galway, and the Tribe as well. A smart game-plan and improved work-rate left Cork in with a chance in the second half last weekend, but that was where the game was going to be won, and the better side did.
There’s a reason Barry-Murphy was given a three-year term when he returned as bainisteoir last winter. Even when the league performances and results suggested Cork could challenge for Liam McCarthy, JBM and his management team — including physical trainer and former Olympian Dave Matthews — pleaded for patience.
Speaking on the eve of the league final with the Cats they were all at pains to point out that Cork were far from the finished article. The shelling they received from Kilkenny, and subsequent defeats to Tipp and Galway, proved that.
You could certainly make a case that the Leesiders are the best of the rest right now, the fourth best in the country, but the challenge now is make up the gap to the big three over the winter.
1. Solid semi-final display: The Rebels were never brilliant this summer, but they weren’t blitzed in exiting the championship like 2010 and 2011 either.
The draw was favourable (Kilkenny were avoided), however getting to the last four and competing until the final whistle must be considered progress.
2. Young guns blooded: The next generation were also given a taste of championship action, with 25 players used in five games, and Darren Sweetnam and Conor Lehane should be major figures in 2013.
Cian McCarthy, Daniel Kearney, Chris Joyce and Stephen Moylan didn’t have the benefit of a league, Damien Cahalane only played once. All will be important from here.
3. Exciting forwards: There are concerns about the fact so many of the new breed of Rebel forwards are cut from the same cloth — quick with a good touch yet very light.
However the likes of Lehane, Jamie Coughlan and Luke O’Farrell will get stronger following Dave Matthews’ strength and conditioning program, and have the raw talent to thrive.
1. No silverware again:
The Rebels have now gone six seasons without lifting a trophy, and have only made three finals (two league, one Munster) in that period.
The longer you go without silverware the harder it becomes to maximise your opportunities — look at Arsenal, inexplicably losing to Birmingham in a cup final last year.
2. Underage woes: There is some fantastic work going on in pockets of Leeside, but the Cork County Board have yet to present a coherent, strategy to see Cork teams prosper underage again.
Even a county like Clare won the Munster U21 and made the All-Ireland minor semi. Cork’s youngsters are being promoted to senior after chastening minor and U21 results. It doesn’t breed winners.
3. Lack of power up front: JBM doesn’t have a crop of physical forwards at his disposal — but either the current bunch need to become more aggressive and better in the air over the winter, or a couple of big men must be drafted into the panel (with no obvious candidates out there).
Cloyne big man Conor Cusack (@conor14cusack) wondered on Twitter if there was a physically, strong and brave inside forward ready to emerge from the club championship “preferably 6 foot 3, with shoulders like Alan Brown and the intelligence of Brian Corcoran… if we could clone Pa Cronin perhaps…”
If only! But such an option would transform Cork.