WHILE Cork have been ranked a bit below Tipperary in the pecking-order over the past few years, their record in head-to-head collisions with the Blue and Gold is respectable enough.
One has to go back to 2009 to discover the last time that the Rebels, fielding a makeshift team due to an internal dispute, tasted defeat against Tipp in the league. And the teams have met on four occasions in the interim, with Cork coming through by a point in 2010, registering a seven-point win at the semi final stage last year, and finishing with a share of the spoils in the two preliminary round fixtures in the interim.
In the championship, Cork scored a resounding victory in Munster three years ago, and they lost no caste when succumbing to Tipp in 2011 and 2012. True, Tipp ran out winners by eight points at Thurles in 2011, but the margin did scant justice to the efforts of a Cork team that staged a gutsy second half comeback before the concession of a soft goal derailed their recovery in the closing stages.
There was just the bare minimum between the sides at Pairc Ui Chaoimh last year, with Tipp's greater experience arguably proving decisive as they overcame the handicap of being reduced to 14 players midway through the second half. Taking all of that into account, Cork would appear to have little reason to be intimidated by the task of tackling Tipp in the opening round of the National League at Pairc on Saturday night.
Indeed, it might be fair to say that Cork were entitled to draw greater encouragement than Tipp from developments last season, even if the men in Blue and Gold did collect their fourth provincial title in five years. As well as Cork, both Limerick and Waterford pushed Tipp all the way in Munster last year, while their abysmal display against Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi final was a real downer, leading to severe recriminations within the county, not least because of the crazy tactics adopted by the team on the day.
After taking the backdoor route to the top in 2010, foiling Kilkenny's five-in-a-row ambitions in the All-Ireland final, it was widely speculated that Tipp were equipped to replace the Noresiders as the dominant hurling power in the ensuing seasons, but they have failed to build on their success three years ago, and the perception now is that, not only have they come back to the chasing pack a little, they have slipped to third position behind Galway in the current rankings.
Cork, for their part, weren't expected to garner any silverware in 2012, so, in qualifying for the league final and an All-Ireland semi final, it would appear as if they are moving in the right direction under Jimmy Barry-Murphy's stewardship. Barry-Murphy is fully aware that Cork have still a long way to go in order to ascend to the level of the top teams, as their humiliation by Kilkenny in the league decider and their seven-point defeat by Galway in the All-Ireland series amply illustrates.
That they remain a work in progress is beyond dispute, and what happens over the next 12 months will go a long way towards confirming whether or not they are a team on the rise. For Saturday's clash with Tipp, the selectors won't have a full panel to pick from, as new team skipper Pa Cronin is ruled out by suspension, while Jamie Coughlan is on the injured list. But they will have the bulk of last year's championship squad available, with the obvious exception of Eoin Cadogan, who has opted to give total allegiance to the Cork footballers this year, and a few others who, for one reason or another, are no longer part of the equation.
With All-Star keeper Anthony Nash, Shane O'Neill, Tom Kenny, Paudie O'Sullivan and Patrick Horgan expected to start against Tipp, Cork will have a decent core of experience in the team, while such as Conor O'Sullivan, Stephen McDonnell, Lorcan McLoughlin, Luke O'Farrell, Cian McCarthy and William Egan can no longer be filed away in the neophyte category at this stage. It's going to a big year for the latter sextet, all of whom will be hoping to demonstrate they can produce the goods at the top level on a regular basis, and for the likes of Chris Joyce, Conor Lehane, Daniel Kearney and Stephen Moylan, who got their first taste of championship action in 2012.
In the build-up to the league, the management ran the rule over some fresh material in the Waterford Crystal Cup and a number of challenge games. One player who certainly put his hand up was Kilworth's Adrian Mannix, who could get the nod in attack for the Tipp match which, given the fixtures schedule in Division 1A, might well prove to be a defining game in terms of Cork's league ambitions.
Under new management, headed by Eamonn O'Shea (above), Tipp will be hell-bent on making a positive start to the season and getting the show back on the road following their traumatic All-Ireland semi final defeat by Kilkenny last year. In the circumstances, one would have to say that Cork are going to be hard-pressed to extend their recent sequence of favourable league results against the Premier County men.