THE Cork hurlers won't be lacking incentive when they throw down the gauntlet to Clare at Pairc Uí Rinn on Saturday night.
With three points in the bag from two outings, the Rebels would be in a most advantageous position in the terms of reaching the knock-out stages of the NHL should they deliver the goods against the Banner. And, with competition for places mounting, there is no doubt that the players selected for the game will be very keen to make an impression.
It will be Cork's third league game under lights at Pairc Uí Rinn since Jimmy Barry-Murphy took the helm last year, and they enjoyed comprehensive wins in their previous two, against Waterford in 2012 and against Tipperary a few weeks ago. It suggests they will be a very positive frame of mind heading into the clash with Davy Fitzgerald's men, and it can be taken for granted Rebel supporters will be out in force in anticipation of another strong performance from the home side.
Their display against Tipp last month was quite superb, and they won't be denied if they reach similar heights again. Last Sunday's encounter with Waterford amounted to a dog-fight in extremely testing conditions, and Cork weren't found wanting as, trailing by eight points at half time, they staged a gutsy comeback to emerge from Dungarvan with a share of the spoils.
It was impossible to produce any sort of decent hurling on a pitch that resembled a quagmire, but the resolve which Cork displayed was certainly encouraging, and the indications are that the attitude of the players leaves nothing to be desired at this juncture.
It's very early days yet of course, and the priority for the management is to run the rule over as many players as possible in the league as they attempt to plug the gaps stemming from the departure, for a variety of reasons, of several players from last year's squad. The game against Waterford would have been a futile exercise in this regard, as the conditions ordained it was never going to be a true test for any of the comparative newcomers on duty.
So, it's quite likely that Kildorrery's Peter O'Brien and St Ita's Seamus Harnedy, both of whom were handed a league debut against Waterford, will be given another chance to show what they can do up front against Clare. The same applies to Ballygarvan's Stephen White, who lined at wing back in both of Cork's previous league outings and did reasonably well. He might need to do a bit more, however, in order to convince the selectors he has what it takes to nail down a place in the half back line, particularly since Cork aren't short of options in this sector.
William Egan was rested for the Waterford game, but he came on at full back in the closing stages, showing flashes of the form that made him one of Cork's stand-out performers when filling his customary wing back slot against Tipp. Chris Joyce also excelled in the league opener at centre-back, a position that was filled by team skipper Pa Cronin in Dungarvan.
Cronin will be expected to be employed either at midfield or in attack when the team for the championship begins to take shape, but that won't lead to any significant reduction in competition for places in the half-back line. The experienced Tom Kenny is still a viable option, while Lorcan McLoughlin, currently partnering Daniel Kearney at midfield, would be equally at home operating in a wing back berth.
Daniel Kearney looks to be in pole position for a midfield slot at this stage, and it will be interesting to see if he continues to develop as the league progresses. Joyce, Egan and Stephen Moylan, who certainly laid down a marker in the games against Tipp and Waterford, are others who will be hoping to build on promising early season form, and how Moylan shapes up in attack against Clare is bound to be closely monitored.
Paudie O'Sullivan and Patrick Horgan are virtually guaranteed to feature in the championship side, and Conor Lehane is likely to be an automatic choice as well, with such as Cian McCarthy, Luke O'Farrell, Peter O'Brien, Seamus Harnedy, Michael Cussen, Jamie Coughlan, Cathal Naughton and maybe young Brian Hartnett of Midleton, who has yet to get a start at senior level with Cork, vying for the other three places.
Shane O'Neill, Stephen McDonnell and Conor O'Sullivan have comprised the full back line for the last two games, and it's a unit that could remain intact for the championship Yet, with seasoned stalwart Brian Murphy and the up-and-coming Mark Ellis of Millstreet currently waiting in the wings, it remains to be seen who will be fronting All-Star custodian Anthony Nash come the summer.
It's vitally important to develop a strong panel in the modern game of course, and that hasn't been lost on the team management, who have been doing all they can to unearth some fresh blood since their installation last year. To advance to the league semi finals would obviously be beneficial in allowing the backroom team to get all the pieces to fall into place, and victory over Clare on Saturday night appears to be crucial if Cork hope to achieve their initial aim for the season.
Clare will be no push-over, and recent success at under-age level has many viewing them as a team with the potential to make a major impact in the year ahead.
Having recovered from a narrow defeat by Waterford in Round 1 to fashion a merited win over Galway in Ennis last week-end, they will travel to Leeside with a spring in their step, but the odds are that Cork, with home advantage, will prevail.
In the six league games played in Division 1 so far, four have gone the way of the home side, with Waterford's win over Clare, and Cork's draw with Waterford the exceptions. All of which underlines the fact that operating on home soil usually counts for a lot in the league, and it would be a significant psychological setback for the youthful Rebels heading into their last two games away to Galway and Kilkenny if they don't get the job done against Clare.