Martin Breheny: Rebels have 48 hours to rescue their GAA season
Cork hurling is facing into a massively important 48 hours as the minors and seniors seek to rescue a season that risks becoming ominously reflective of a longer-term malaise.
The minors will be attempting to reach the Munster final for the first time since 2008 when they play Limerick in the Gaelic Grounds this evening, while the seniors will be trying to avoid their earliest All-Ireland exit since 2001 when they face Wexford on Saturday.
Cork U-21s are already out of the Munster Championship, having lost to Waterford by 10 points in the first round. They lost last year's Munster final to Clare by 15 points.
Reaching the 2013 All-Ireland final, followed by a first Munster title for eight seasons last year, dramatically increased the value of Cork's senior stock, but it dropped back over the last two months after defeats by Waterford in the Allianz League final and the Munster semi-final.
Those setbacks, combined with the big U-21 defeat, have refocused attention on Cork's overall decline, which has been ongoing for quite some time.
Meanwhile, the ambitious plan to redevelop Páirc Uí Chaoimh into a 45,000-seater stadium at a cost of €70m will go ahead, despite questions over the need for such a big facility, whose capacity will be tested very infrequently.
The are many people in Cork who believe that investing in hurling - especially in the city - would make more sense at a time when the county's lack of success at underage level is in marked contrast with its gloried past.
Cork haven't won an All-Ireland minor title since 2001, their longest barren spell since the grade was introduced in 1928, while their last Munster success was in 2008.
The last U-21 All-Ireland win was in 1998, with a team that included Donal Og Cusack, Diarmuid O'Sullivan, Wayne Sherlock, Seán Og O hAilpín, Joe Deane, Timmy McCarthy and Neil Ronan, all of whom went on to become top-class seniors.
It showed how smoothly Cork's supply lines were running at the time but all changed in the new Millennium. No Munster U-21 title has gone to Leeside since 2005, which was to be expected after the minors failed to make much impression earlier on.
Cork's impact on the club scene has been minimal too. In 2004, Newtownshandrum ended the county's 16-year gap without an All-Ireland senior crown.
Midleton were the previous winners in 1988. Cork clubs dominated the 1970s - the first decade of the All-Ireland Club Championship - with Blackrock, Glen Rovers and St Finbarr's winning seven titles between them.
Indeed, there were grumblings at the time that the club championships were becoming mere benefit outing for the Rebel county.
Cork won no fewer than 19 All-Ireland and 30 Munster titles across the main county and club grades in the '70s.
It was down to four All-Ireland and 14 Munster titles in the first decade of the new Millennium, and has slumped to alarmingly low levels in the first five seasons (2010-14) of this decade.
The Rebels have won no All-Ireland in that period, while last year's win by Jimmy Barry-Murphy's men was the only Munster title to go to Leeside.
It has increased the pressure on the seniors to re-launch their All-Ireland ambitions on Saturday and on the minors to keep their title aspirations afloat this evening.
The seniors came in for heavy criticism after collapsing so spectacularly against Tipperary in last year's All-Ireland semi-final, but appeared to be playing their way back into the supporters' good books when they reached the League final in May.
However, a defeat by Waterford, followed by another setback against Derek McGrath's rapidly improving troops five weeks later in the Munster Championship, left Cork supporters totally bewildered.
Predictably, some have blamed Barry-Murphy and his management team, but that ignores the reality that selectors have to work off whatever talent is available.
That has manifested itself in Cork's defensive problems, caused by injuries to Lorcan McLoughlin, Christopher Joyce and Shane O'Neill.
Barry-Murphy has acknowledged that Cork are short on defensive cover, a deficit that has left them vulnerable all season.
They conceded a total of 5-75 in three of the last four League games against Tipperary, Dublin and Waterford, followed by 3-19 against the Deise in the Munster semi-final.
It's an average of 2-24 per game, a giveaway rate that's not sustainable for any team with big-time ambitions.
That has been coupled with an inability to score goals on a consistent basis. They hit four against Tipperary in their final Division 1A game, but had managed only five in their previous four games.
They scored only one goal in their last three League games against Wexford, Dublin and Waterford and managed just one against the Deise in the Munster semi-final.
It all adds up to a combination of problems for Cork as they prepare for the big test in Innovate Wexford Park.
However, JBM remains convinced that there's nothing fundamentally wrong and that the landscape could change if they put a few wins together.
His optimism isn't shared universally in Cork, where the realisation is spreading that the county just isn't producing the quality of players required to succeed in the modern game.
The senior squad is the shop window in every county but those entrusted with decorating it have to rely on what's provided for them.
Unfortunately for Cork, the raw material hasn't been good enough in recent times. But then, that's hardly surprising since the underage conveyor belt has repeatedly broken down over the last decade or more.
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