CORK'S quest for a league treble powers on. Dublin retreat to the training ground to begin the eight-week countdown to the launch of their All-Ireland title defence.
For Cork, it's an opportunity to continue their fine-tuning in a competitive environment, while Dublin must absorb the lessons learned from a volatile league campaign which yielded more defeats than victories.
It split 4-3 on the loss side with the fourth defeat coming at Pairc Ui Chaoimh yesterday, where Cork took the early initiative, built it into a seven-point lead after 20 minutes and were able to live off the interest from the solid investment.
Dublin plundered some of Cork's gold in the second half, paring the lead back to two points in the 47th minute, but couldn't quite see the job through. Meanwhile, Mayo and Down were doing well enough elsewhere to move ahead of Dublin and join Kerry and Cork in the semi-finals.
"It's disappointing to miss out on the semi-finals, but there were some pluses too. We played a hell of a lot better today than last week," said Dublin manager Pat Gilroy.
That was unquestionably the case in terms of energy and application, but they were undermined by wayward shooting, missing the target on 14 occasions. Diarmuid Connolly was the chief culprit, kicking no fewer than six wides, three from frees.
Ultimately, though, it was a 19th- minute goal from Aidan Walsh which proved the tie-breaker. It extended Cork's lead to 1-5 to 0-1 and while Dublin out-scored Cork by 0-11 to 0-7 from there on, they just couldn't draw alongside the enterprising hosts.
The goal was rather fortuitous as Walsh got the merest of touches to a Fintan Goold delivery, directing the ball just inside the post past goalkeeper Michael Savage.
By half-time, Dublin had cut the lead back to six points (1-8 to 0-5) and enjoyed their best spell in the opening 12 minutes of the second half, kicking four unanswered points.
The momentum was very much with them at that stage, but Cork finally lifted the siege in the 49th minute when Colm O'Neill kicked the second of his four points. It restored stability for Cork and once they got their work rate back up to the required levels they matched Dublin in effort and intensity while guarding their precious lead.
"Job done, I suppose. That's as much as you say about it. We've got a semi-final next week which is good because we have a lot of improving to do," said Cork manager Conor Counihan.
The win took Cork into second place on the table behind Kerry with nine points from a possible 14, which was a fair reflection on their season to date. They have looked extremely good at times, only to lapse into periods of mediocrity which continue to baffle themselves and their supporters.
"We've had difficulties starting games but today we got it right early on, only to drop the momentum in the second half," said Counihan. "We withstood the challenge which Dublin threw at us but we still have a lot of room for improvement.
"We scored only four points in the second half -- you wouldn't win too many games doing that. We're not going to dominate for 70 minutes. We need to dominate for longer periods than we're doing. We need to be more consistent too."
For all that, Cork have checked into the semi-final (they would have qualified for the final under the system which applied in recent years), whereas Dublin are reflecting on their leanest spring campaign for a few years.
With four of eight teams to make the semi-finals, they would have been expected to qualify comfortably but defeats by Kerry, Down, Mayo and Cork -- the last three away -- left Dublin in fifth place and facing a period of personal assessment ahead of the championship.
"We just have to get on with things now. It's our own fault -- we should have been able to get two points from out last two games," said Gilroy.
However, he was encouraged by the return to something much closer to normal service in terms of intensity after the limp display against Mayo.
"The other three games we lost, we just weren't up to the intensity required. Today, we got the levels back up, but it was an issue in some of the earlier games and opponents took advantage of it," said Gilroy.
Despite missing the semi-final cut, Gilroy believes that Dublin can take some positives from the spring campaign. "We uncovered a few new players, which was one of the things we wanted to do. We'll re-focus now and work really hard for the championship," he added.
Once again, Dublin had issues on the discipline front, picking up seven yellow cards but this time Gilroy didn't believe they were all merited.
"There's league reffing and there's championship reffing. I thought we were quite good today -- we tackled well but got yellow cards for what I would deem to be good tackles. That's frustrating because overall I thought our discipline was fine today."
So then, Dublin depart the front line for eight weeks while Cork press on in pursuit of another league title. They will do so from a position of strength as they have a lot to recommend them when they impose the full range of their considerable talents on the opposition.
Michael Shields, Graham Canty, Pearse O'Neill, Paul Kerrigan, Colm O'Neill and Aidan Walsh all enjoyed high-productive periods yesterday, with Walsh helping himself to 1-1 after starting at left full-forward, an unusual positing for the Kanturk giant.
He later moved out the field and got in plenty good work there too on a day when Cork achieved their first target of the season, while Dublin missed theirs.
Man of the Match: Aidan Walsh (Cork)
Scorers -- Cork: A Walsh 1-1, C O'Neill 0-4 (2f), P O'Neill, D O'Connor (1f), P Kerrigan 0-2 each, F Goold 0-1. Dublin: D Connolly 0-5 (2f), MD Macauley, K McManamon, B Cullen 0-2 each, E Fennell 0-1.
Cork -- K O'Halloran 6; E Cotter 7, M Shields 8, R Carey 7; G Canty 8, E Cadogan 7, S Kiely 6; A O'Connor 7, P O'Neill 8; F Goold 7, P Kerrigan 7, P Kelly 7; C O'Neill 8, D O'Connor 7, A Walsh 8. Subs: P Kissane 7 for Kiely (h-t), N Murphy 6 for O'Connor (55), N O'Leary for Cadogan (65), J O'Sullivan for Cotter (68).
Dublin -- M Savage 6; R O'Carroll 7, C O'Sullivan 7, P McMahon 7; J Cooper 6, J McCarthy 7, K Nolan 6; S Murray 5, E Fennell 7; D Byrne 5, Mc Macauley 7, B Cullen 7; C Dias 6, D Connolly 7, K McManamon 7. Subs: D Bastick 6 for Murray (31), B Cahill 5 for Byrne (h-t), P Brogan for Nolan (61), D Kelly for Dias (62), R McConnell for Fennell (66).
REF -- D Coldrick (Meath).
UPS AND DOWNS
Semi-finals: Kerry v Mayo; Cork v Down. Ties to be played on April 15
Relegated: Laois, Armagh.
Promoted: Tyrone, Kildare;
Relegated: Monaghan, Meath.
Promoted: Longford, Wexford
Relegated: Offaly, Tipperary.
Promoted: Fermanagh plus the winners of next Sunday's game between Wicklow and Clare.