If forwards fire Cork won't be far away
NEXT Sunday's NHL quarter-final clash with Tipperary is going to be very revealing from a Cork perspective.
Unbeaten after five games in Division 1B, the Rebels have done all that has been asked of them up to now, securing promotion by virtue of a merited win over Wexford last Sunday. It's generally accepted, however, that their form has left a bit to desired, as they made hard work of accounting for Laois, Offaly and Antrim in the group stage.
Despite scorching into a six-point lead early on in their opening assignment against Limerick, and enjoying a numerical advantage for the entire second half, they were held to a draw by the Shannonsiders at Pairc Uí Rinn.
They raised their level of performance somewhat against Wexford, but it wasn't an entirely compelling display at the same time, given that they were outplayed for a spell in the second half. After conceding six scores on the trot, Cork were clinging to a one-point lead, but they upped the ante again to ease smoothly clear of danger on the run-in.
Perhaps, the opposition in Division 1B was better than expected, and the fact that Limerick, apart from registering a comprehensive win over Antrim at the Gaelic Grounds, also found the going tough in their other games tends to suggest it was.
It could be argued as well that Cork found it difficult to get fully motivated for the encounters with Laois, Offaly and Antrim, and produced little more than was required to meet the demands of those occasions.
True, they needed to run up big wins in their remaining games after the draw with Limerick in Round 1 meant that score difference was likely to be a factor in relation to their promotion prospects.
It was obvious, however, that the priority for the Cork management was to assess all their options over the course of the league, even if it came at the cost of spending another season outside the top tier. As things transpired, Cork enjoyed the best of both worlds, as Limerick's draw with Offaly in Round 4 put the Rebels in pole position for promotion heading into the final series of games.
They duly sealed the deal against Wexford, but the big question now is to what extent operating in Division 1B has dulled the edge of last year's defeated All-Ireland finalists over the past few months.
There is no denying that the games in Division 1A were played at a much higher tempo than Cork have been accustomed to this season, as Jimmy Barry-Murphy acknowledged in the wake of Cork's victory over Wexford last Sunday.
On the face of it, it appears to leave them at a distinct disadvantage ahead of next Sunday's showdown with Tipp, who, it will be recalled, dished out an unmerciful hammering to Division 1B winners Dublin in last year's league semi-final.
But Tipp haven't exactly been firing on all cylinders in the league this season, and were fortunate to shade the issue against Dublin at Thurles last Sunday, and likewise in their opening outing against Waterford, having suffered consecutive defeats at the hands of Kilkenny, Clare and Galway in the interim.
So, Cork have no reason to be unduly intimated by the task ahead, all the more since there were signs in the Wexford game they are moving closer to their best form, but it goes without saying further improvement will be required if they hope to bring down Tipp on their home patch.
Regardless of the outcome, however, the game will be a big help to the management in terms of gauging where the team stands at this juncture. There will be a few changes to the side that lined out against Wexford, as Stephen McDonnell and Stephen Moylan are both unavailable, and Killian Murphy is a doubtful starter due to injury.
Moylan's absence is likely to result in a call-up for Alan Cadogan, who has ticked all the right boxes when pressed into action in the league so far, not least after being sprung from the bench against Wexford last Sunday.
William Egan, who was away last weekend, is set to return at the back where dual player Damien Cahalane, who came on as a substitute against Wexford, might also be accommodated should the selectors decide to put the finishing touches to what has been an extensive squad assessment over the past few months.
Cork have a good record in the league against Tipp in recent times, and not since 2009, when they fielded a makeshift side due to an internal dispute, have they tasted defeat at the hands of their age-olds rivals.
The teams have met five times in the interim, with Cork coming out on top under JBM in the 2012 semi final and, by 12 points, at Pairc Uí Rinn last year. If such as Seamus Harnedy, Patrick Horgan and Conor Lehane strike their best form up front, the odds are they won't be too far away either on Sunday.