IT isn't easy to be optimistic about Cork's chances in Sunday's Munster senior hurling championship semi-final clash with Clare at the Gaelic Grounds.
It will be the Rebels' first competitive game since succumbing to Clare in the relegation play-off in early April, a game which resulted in a two-point win for the Banner-men, 0-31 to 2-23 after extra-time.
With so little separating the sides at the end of the ninety minutes on that occasion, it would appear, on the face of it, as if Cork would be quite capable of turning the tables when rivalry is renewed with Davy Fitzgerald's men at the week-end. But the reality was that Cork's performance left quite a bit to be desired, and, outplayed for long stretches of the second half, they were decidedly fortunate that Clare were extremely profligate, accumulating 24 wides, 12 more than the losers, on the day.
That was the primary reason why the teams were tied at the end of normal time, and, had Clare availed of even half of the chances that came their way, they would have won every bit as convincingly as they did when finishing eight points to the good in the league encounter at Pairc Uí Rinn a few weeks earlier. It goes without saying of course that there is a huge difference between league and championship, and it would be foolish to write Cork off on the basis of what transpired in their two previous collisions with Clare this season.
But there is no denying their hopes of getting off to a positive start in Munster have been severely dented by the loss of three key players – Paudie O'Sullivan, Lorcan McLoughlin and Pa Cronin – since the conclusion of the league. In addition to that, Clare will be going into the game on the back of a morale-boosting win over Waterford in the opening round, and they appear to be going great guns at the moment.
So, all the indications are that the odds are stacked against Cork, and they certainly could have done without the injury-problems, considering the management - due to player defections, retirements and the axing of a couple of seasoned stalwarts - already had a few gaps to plug from last year. To this end, they used a total of 27 players over the course of the league, and it was certainly encouraging that, aside from the two encounters with Clare, the team performed creditably in every game.
For the relegation play-off at the Gaelic Grounds, however, Cork lined out with what, at the time, was expected to be as close as possible to their championship team, with Shane O'Neill, Stephen McDonnell and Jamie Coughlan the only squad members unavailable. In the circumstances, it was a more than a little disturbing the way the game panned out, and it would be fair to say that most of the top performers on view wore a Clare shirt that day.
At the recent press evening ahead of the Munster semi final, Rebel boss Jimmy Barry-Murphy was quick to point out it wasn't until the closing stages of both league games that Clare got on top, and he revealed that Cork have brushed up considerably on their fitness-levels during the past few months. His remarks were echoed by all the players interviewed on the night, and obviously the belief in the Cork camp is that it will make a big difference on Sunday.
Maybe so, but it's hard to escape the notion that Cork will struggle to overcome the handicap stemming from the absence of experienced and creative attacker O'Sullivan, McLoughlin, who had an excellent league campaign at midfield, and team skipper Cronin. It's hoped that Cronin, the team's chief ball-winner under puck-outs, might be able to play a part at some stage on Sunday, but championship hurling in no place for anyone who isn't 100%, and there has to be doubts about his ability to produce his best form if he is sprung from the bench.
What Cork's starting fifteen will be is anyone's guess, although the seasoned Brian Murphy, who will deputise for Cronin as captain, and Conor O'Sullivan are automatic choices in the full back line, as are Chris Joyce and William Egan in the half back line, and Anthony Nash between the sticks.
Shane O'Neill is guaranteed to start in defence as well, but he could be prevailed upon to join Joyce and Egan in the half back line - where newcomer Stephen White is in with an outside chance of gaining recognition - in order to facilitate the inclusion of Stephen McDonnell at corner-back. Alternatively, the long-serving Tom Kenny could be accommodated in a wing-back slot, but he will also be in contention for a place at midfield, along with Daniel Kearney and Cathal Naughton.
Up front, Cian McCarthy is likely to get the nod on the '40, with Conor Lehane a banker to fill a wing forward berth, and Patrick Horgan and Luke O'Farrell certain to occupy two of the three positions in the inside line.
In the running for the other two places in attack are Naughton, Jamie Coughlan, Stephen Moylan, Michael Cussen and Seamus Harnedy from junior club St Ita's, who, by all accounts, impressed in a few recent challenge games and in training, and might well be the only player handed a championship debut for the showdown with Clare.
It's hard to know what to expect from Cork, and JBM accepts there is a lot of scepticism within the county in relation to their prospects this summer, but he is hoping the team will be well-supported on Sunday for all that. Clare will have no worries in this regard, but that could serve to increase the pressure on Davy Fitzgerald's youthful side.
Containing several players with All-Ireland Under 21 medals to their credit, they are clearly an up-and-coming outfit, but, notwithstanding the win over Waterford, they have still to prove they are close to reaching their full potential, and it remains to be seen how they will cope with the burden of favouritism on Sunday.
If they handle it, they should prevail, but it's by means beyond the bounds of possibility that a fully fired-up Cork can triumph over adversity and bring them down.