WHILE there was a lot to admire about Cork's performance at Nowlan Park last Sunday, it might be unwise to attach too much significance to it in terms of assessing their prospects for the championship.
The bottom line was that they came up short against Kilkenny, and it would be fair to say that the honours rested where they belonged at the end of a gripping encounter. Indeed, it could be argued that Cork were a tad flattered to finish just two points in arrears, bearing in mind that Kilkenny's return from two penalty chances amounted to a solitary point, and that the home side put 20 scores on the board, six more then the Rebels, over the 70 minutes.
Cork squandered a fair few chances as well of course, and, but for the sharpness of Kilkenny custodian Eoin Murphy, they could have been in a strong position at half-time. Instead, they turned over on level terms, and they were under pressure for long stretches of the second half against the wind, particularly in the last 20 minutes when their only score from play came from Conor Lehane, who fired in their second goal in stoppage time.
Taking on Kilkenny on their home patch was always going to be a difficult assignment, especially since there was so much at stake, with a place in the league semi-final the prize for the winners, and relegation a distinct possibility for the losers. In truth, nobody would have been prepared to back Cork for the win against the Cats, who lined out with 11 of last year's All-Ireland final side on board, and finished the match with 12 after Richie Power was introduced before half-time.
In the circumstances, Cork did as well as could have been expected perhaps, and it's easy to appreciate why Jimmy Barry-Murphy and the rest of the management team will be inclined to draw a lot of encouragement from the performance. But it's worth noting that Cork ran Kilkenny to a point at Nowlan Park two seasons ago, and they claimed a couple of home wins over Brian Cody's men in the 2010 and 2012 league campaigns.
Taking that into account, it makes little sense to conclude that Cork are going to be a major force in the championship on the evidence provided last Sunday. At the same time, it was important that they performed creditably, and the selectors are entitled to feel reasonably satisfied with the team's overall form in the league. Apart from the blip against Clare at Pairc Uí Rinn, Cork have acquitted themselves admirably, torching Tipp in Round 1, and emerging with a share of the spoils from a couple of difficult tests on the road against Waterford and Galway.
Arguably, the displays against Waterford and Galway were particularly laudable, not least in terms of the resolve and determination exhibited by the players in coming from behind to salvage a draw in both games. The result against Tipp was an aberration, in that the Premier County men were way off the pace on the night, and they have since moved up the gears, securing a semi-final spot by virtue of a resounding win over Clare at Semple Stadium last Sunday.
With Galway accounting for Waterford at Walsh Park, it means that the three teams heading the ante-post betting on the championship have claimed the semi final berths up for grabs in Division 1A. It would have meant a lot more to Cork, Clare and Waterford had they advanced to the business end of the league, given that they are all going through a transitional phase, and involvement in the knock-out stages would have been hugely beneficial in regard to hastening the development process.
At least, Cork and Clare will have one more competitive outing prior to the championship, and their collision in the relegation play-off could have a significant bearing on how their respective seasons are going to pan out. To endure the ignominy of demotion would obviously be a blow to confidence and morale for either side, while to complete the league campaign on a positive note would ease the disappointment of losing out on a place in the semi-finals no end.
It's an opportunity for Cork to settle the score with Clare after what happened at Pairc Ui Rinn a few weeks ago, and it would bring the curtain down on a satisfactory league, during which the management had a look at 26 players, should they avail of it