AS good as could have been expected but not as good as might have been hoped.
That would be an apt way to sum up a year in which the Cork senior hurlers qualified for the league final and an All-Ireland semi-final only to have their limitations exposed in both. Measured against developments in 2011 when Cork occupied sixth position in an eightteam group in the league and were eliminated from the All-Ireland race prior to the quarter-finals, it could be argued that significant progress has been made over the past 12 months.
But where Cork currently stand in hurling's pecking order is hard to assess, and it would be fair to say that they still have a bit to go before they are ready to measure up against the really big guns. Whether they deserve to be ranked as the front-runners in the chasing pack behind the likes of Kilkenny, Galway and Tipperary is a moot point as well, with such as Limerick, Waterford and Clare all entitled to be rated on par with the Rebels based on their championship form this year.
Building for the future was the priority for new Cork boss Jimmy Barry-Murphy at the start of the season, and he repeatedly stated over the course of it that he wanted to develop the panel to the extent that there would be keen competition for places in every sector. He admitted the management was starting from a fairly low base, and he was obviously delighted that the team qualified for the league play-offs, something that didn't appear to be on the cards after they were beaten by Galway in Round 3 at Pairc Uí Chaoimh.
They had claimed maximum points at the expense of Waterford and Dublin prior to that, but the loss to the Tribesmen meant they needed to get something out of their remaining games against Kilkenny and Tipp to have any chance of claiming one of the three semi-final places up for grabs. That was no small order, but Cork delivered the goods against the hitherto unbeaten Cats next time out at Pairc Uí Chaoimh before sharing the spoils with Tipp at Thurles.
After Galway lost their last two games against Waterford and Kilkenny, it was Kilkenny, Cork and Tipp that filled the top three positions in Division 1A, with the Leesiders again being pitted against the Premier County men at Semple Stadium in the semi-final. They came through it with seven points to spare, 1-25 to 215, asserting their authority in the last quarter when aided by a goal from Luke O'Farrell, they outscored Tipp by 1-7 to 0-1.
O'Farrell, who replaced the injured Cathal Naughton, was one of four changes made to the team from the previous outing against Tipp, with Conor O'Sullivan in for the injured Brian Murphy at corner back, and seasoned stalwarts John Gardiner and Niall McCarthy called up to the starting fifteen after the management opted to rest promising rookies Darren Sweetnam and Conor Lehane.
It fuelled the notion that the panel had been strengthened considerably since the start of the league campaign which, just as much as qualification for the league final, was viewed as a major positive.
The growing mood of optimism was severely dampened, however, when Cork shipped a 14-point thrashing from Kilkenny in the league decider, a game that was effectively over as a contest inside ten minutes.
Early goals from Eoin Larkin and Colin Fennelly laid the foundations for a Kilkenny victory that was even more comprehensive than the 3-21 to 0-16 scoreline suggests, and Cork's abject capitulation was particularly disturbing since the Noresiders fielded without a few regulars, including ace attackers Henry Shefflin and Richie Power. It was indeed a harsh reality check, and predictably it prompted a major overhaul of the side for the opening championship test against Tipp in the Munster semifinal.
Demoted were Martin Coleman, who, after Donal Og Cusack sustained a season-ending injury in the league semi final, had been handed the No 1 shirt for the final, Stephen McDonnell, Sean Óg ÓG hÁilpin, John Gardiner, Niall McCarthy and Luke O'Farrell. In came Anthony Nash, Conor O'Sullivan, Tom Kenny, Darren Sweetnam, Cathal Naughton and Jamie Coughlan, with Sweetman making his championship debut, along with Conor Lehane.
It was a first championship start for Coughlan, while Daniel Kearney, who, without as much as a league game under his belt, was really thrown in at the deep end when introduced as a substitute for the last quarter. Cork made a gallant bid to topple Tipp at Pairc Uí Chaoimh, and, with Patrick Horgan and especially Paudie O'Sullivan shining in attack, and Conor O'Sullivan turning in a five-star display at corner back, they were full value for an 0-14 to 0-12 lead at half-time.
With a fresh breeze to assist them, Tipp made what appeared to be a decisive breakthrough, courtesy of a goal from Noel McGrath, fifteen minutes into the second half, but they were later reduced to 14 players which provided Cork with the encouragement to stick to their task. Arguably, Tipp's greater experience made the difference as they eventually prevailed by 1-22 to 0-24, but Cork were entitled to take a lot of positives from a performance which enabled them to match the visitors in every facet of the play throughout.
While Cork's display was certainly encouraging, it was worth remembering that they had pushed Tipp hard as well in the 2011 Munster championship, and that they had failed to produce a comparable performance in subsequent outings. It turned out to be a similar story this year as they made hard work of dispatching Offaly and Wexford en route to an All-Ireland quarter-final showdown with Waterford.
For the Offaly game at Pairc Uí Chaoimh, Chris Joyce made his championship debut at centre back, replacing dual-star Eoin Cadogan who was on duty with the footballers the same weekend, while Cian McCarthy got the nod in attack instead of Cathal Naughton.
While Cork ran out winners by seven points, 1-26 to 2-16, it was only in the last ten minutes that they got to grips with a spirited Offaly challenge on a day when the contribution from Patrick Horgan, who scored 1-10, 1-2 from play, was instrumental in smoothing their path to victory.
Against Wexford, Eoin Cadogan returned at centre-back, while Damien Cahalane was yet another player introduced to championship hurling in the top flight, with the unlucky Conor O'Sullivan losing out in the full-back line. Elsewhere, Niall McCarthy was facilitated at wing-forward, with Pa Cronin going to midfield to the exclusion of Darren Sweetnam, and Luke O'Farrell was preferred to Jamie Coughlan in attack.
As things transpired, O'Farrell made a big impact – scoring two goals and winning a penalty which yielded another from Anthony Nash in the first half – as Cork accounted for the Slaneysiders by 3-24 to 217. It was no means a convincing display by the Rebels, however, and, leading by 3-7 to 1-11 at halftime, it wasn't until the closing stages that they settled the issue in what was a mediocre encounter by any standards.
Again the selectors restructured the team for the All-Ireland quarter-final, with Stephen McDonnell and Sean Óg Ó hÁilpin lining out in defence for the first time since the league final, replacing Damien Cahalane and William Egan at full back and wing back respectively. Daniel Kearney got in ahead of Lorcan McLoughlin at midfield, while Conor Lehane's unavailability through injury led to a recall for Jamie Coughlan in attack.
In a game of fluctuating fortunes, Cork made the early running, with a Jamie Coughlan goal propelling them into a 1-5 to 0-2 after 15 minutes. But they scored just seven points over the next 45 minutes before tacking on seven more in the closing ten when they transformed a three-point deficit into a 1-19 to 0-19 lead. Cork's late flourish against Waterford owed much to the impact made by the five players sprung from the bench, most notably Darren Sweetnam, who had a storming second half at midfield, and Cathal Naughton, who scored a couple of vital points.
John Gardiner, Lorcan McLoughlin and championship debutante Stephen Moylan also played their parts in turning the game around for Cork, all of which meant there was no shortage of competition for places heading into the AllIreland semi final encounter with Galway.
It wasn't the ideal way to have it perhaps, given that it's generally preferable to have a fairly settled team in place at such as an advanced stage of the championship.
Yet, the failure of so many players to perform up to scratch on a consistent basis had left the management with little option but to change the team about from game to game. In total, 25 members of the squad tasted championship action this year, but only Anthony Nash, Shane O'Neill, Brian Murphy, Tom Kenny and Patrick Horgan played from start to finish in every match.
It means that Cork remain very much a work in progress at the moment, although their performance against Galway makes it reasonable to conclude that the team is moving in the right direction.
They really put it up to the Westerners in the first half,
at the end of which they weren't flattered to be on level terms at 0-11 apiece. But only Paudie O'Sullivan really measured up in attack before the break, and once he was shackled by Galway's Johnny Coen, Cork were always chasing the game in the second half.
They might still have won it had not Pa Cronin - who carried the sole threat in attack after being switched from midfield to full forward, and was perhaps Cork's top performer overall this year - fired over the bar with a goal chance late on, but, in the final analysis, Galway's winning margin, 0-22 to 0-17, was just about right. Without going anywhere close to replicating the form that had carried them to a resounding victory over Kilkenny in the Leinster final, Galway, with Joe Canning and Damien Hayes inflicting the bulk of the damage in attack, were clearly the better team.
And, for all Cork's admirable spirit and desire, the match didn't completely dispel the perception that ascending to the level of the top teams could be difficult to achieve in the short term. Maybe the pieces will begin to fall into place next year, and the hope is that the majority of the newcomers will have developed sufficiently to be able to nail down a place on the team when afforded the opportunity.
As things stand, however, practically all of them have yet to conclusively prove they can cut it at the top level, and certainly against the game's current elite. In his first stint at the helm between 1996 and 2000, Jimmy Barry-Murphy was again quick to give youth its fling, and it yielded rich dividends as he steered Cork to All-Ireland glory in 1999. But that success was built on the back of consecutive All-Ireland u-21 wins in 1997 and 1998, and since then Cork's All-Ireland return at under-age level amounts to just a minor triumph in 2001.
With Sean Óg retired and Darren Sweetman lost to rugby, Barry-Murphy and his co-mentors Seanie McGrath, Ger Cunningham, Kieran Kingston and Johnny Crowley will continue the search for some fresh blood next season, but one finds it difficult to accept that the experienced John Gardiner, who got such little championship game-time this summer, might be deemed surplus to requirements in the year ahead. At 29, Gardiner surely has something to contribute as Cork bid to confirm they are a team on the rise in 2013.
The jury is still out on that score at the moment, and what happens over the next 12 months should prove much more revealing in terms of whether BarryMurphy can work the oracle for Cork before the conclusion of his four-year stint at the helm.