Unfamiliar territory for Counihan
IT'S unfamiliar territory for the Cork footballers under Conor Counihan.
For the first time since Counihan assumed the reins of control, the Rebels suffered two consecutive league defeats when Kildare claimed the spoils at Pairc Uí Rinn last Saturday night, just a week after Dublin had picked up the brace of points at stake in their clash with the title-holders at Croke Park.
It means that Cork are now faced with an uphill battle as they attempt to extend a period of league dominance, which has yielded three Division 1 triumphs on the trot, preceded by a Division 2 success in 2009.
It's can be safely said, however, that their poor start to the season won't prompt any talk of a crisis on Leeside, even if their performance against the Dubs did leave quite a bit to be desired.
The fact is that the odds were stacked against Cork when they took on a Dublin side that had completed their league preparations with a useful workout in a highly competitive O'Byrne Cup final the previous weekend against Kildare which the Lilywhites won by two points after extra-time.
By contrast, Cork had to rely on a few challenge to get things into shape for the league opener, having made their exit from the McGrath Cup to Tipperary at the quarter-final stage.
It's worth noting as well that Dublin, under new manager Jim Gavin, were bound to be fully fired up and ready to provide a hot reception for a Cork side containing a number of league debutantes. In the circumstances, it was no surprise that Cork didn't measure up, although the manner of their defeat was certainly disappointing.
Significant improvement would have been expected from Cork for the Kildare game, especially in view of their almost flawless record when operating on home soil in the league over the past few seasons. As things transpired, Cork did raise their level of performance, but, following the dismissal of wing-back Damien Cahalane, they were forced to play the last 30 minutes of the match with 14 players which primarily proved their undoing.
Again Cork put out a reasonably experimental side, with Under-21 players Cahalane, John O'Rourke and Clonakilty's Tom Clancy getting another opportunity to display their wares. Cahalalane, prior to his enforced departure, and, to a lesser extent, O'Rourke on the '40', both did well, while Eoin O'Mahony, another player who has yet to taste championship action at the top level, also performed creditably at corner back until the experienced Tomas O'Connor caused him serious problems in the closing stages.
Fermoy's Tom Clancy didn't look out place either when drafted in at wing back for the last 20 minutes, and, all in all, the management will be satisfied enough with the form of the rookies tested up to now. Counihan acknowledged as much last Saturday night, pointing out at the same time that there is possibly a price to be paid when so many newcomers are introduced together.
But he said he is prepared for that, admitting that qualification for the league semi finals isn't one of his priorities this season.
"I wouldn't regard as a major setback if we don't make the play-offs, and what I'd be more concerned about at this stage is getting our game together for the rest of the campaign. If we can manage that, I'd be hopeful the results will take care of themselves."
That suggests the auditioning process will continue for a while yet, although, with the Munster U-21 championship encounter with Kerry scheduled for March 13, Counihan won't have access to the players involved with John Cleary's side for the next two games at least. Assessing all their options prior to the championship appears to be what this league is all about for the management, and if just one or two newcomers can make a smooth transition to the top flight in the summer, it will have served its purpose.
Not that Cork's prospects of completing a four-timer in the league should be completely dismissed at this juncture, as there is still a long way to go, and they can be relied upon to be extremely competitive in their remaining five games against Down and Tyrone away, Donegal at home, Kerry away and Mayo at home.
To relinquish their Division 1 status is certainly something Cork will be anxious to avoid, and it should provide them with sufficient incentive to ensure they will get back to winning ways sooner rather than later.
Aside from the desire to run the rule over as many fringe players as possible, including Mark Collins, who, a leading light during Castlehaven's county senior championship success last year, has yet to feature in the current league, Cork will need to get some game-time into old reliables Pa Kelly and Daniel Goulding once they have recovered from injury. All of which means competition for places is likely to intensify over the next few months, and that can only be a good thing going forward.