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Back in the big time

While there’s still much work to be done, Cork can be confident that things are beginning to look up, writes Noel Horgan

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Cork goalkeeper Anthony Nash is congratulated by supporters after the Munster Senior Hurling Championship semi-final match between Tipperary and Cork at Semple Stadium in Thurles. Photo by Brendan Moran / Sportsfile

Cork goalkeeper Anthony Nash is congratulated by supporters after the Munster Senior Hurling Championship semi-final match between Tipperary and Cork at Semple Stadium in Thurles. Photo by Brendan Moran / Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Cork goalkeeper Anthony Nash is congratulated by supporters after the Munster Senior Hurling Championship semi-final match between Tipperary and Cork at Semple Stadium in Thurles. Photo by Brendan Moran / Sportsfile

After Cork made an ignominious exit from the championship for the third year in a row when going under to lowly-rated Wexford in 2016, there was a lot of speculation as to what extent the team might be overhauled this year.

The search for some fresh blood began in the Munster league nd, in contrast to previous years, it was obvious the auditioning process in the pre-season competition wasn't going to be just a cosmetic exercise.

The management made it clear the newcomers would to be given a genuine opportunity to lay down a marker and that those who performed up to scratch were going to be included in the squad for the National League.

Quite a few of them did and they continued to show encouraging form over the course of the spring campaign, which meant, on the face of it, there was a certain amount of pressure on team boss Kieran Kingston and his co-mentors to bite the bullet when picking the starting fifteen for last Sunday's championship opener against Tipperary.

They didn't shirk the challenge, handing no fewer than five players a first championship start and to throw so many in at the deep end at once against the All-Ireland champions obviously came with risks attached.

The hope was that the rookies would give a decent account of themselves, but, if nothing else, the experience of competing in the white heat of a Munster championship tie was bound to be beneficial in terms of their development.

It seemed unrealistic to expect them all to come through their first big test with flying colours, but that's exactly what happened as Cork recorded a stunning victory over a team that had dispatched them from the provincial title race with consummate ease this time twelve months ago.

That the neophytes contributed enormously to Cork's triumph is beyond dispute, with Mark Coleman, who made his championship debut as a late substitute against Wexford last year, delivering a performance at wing back comparable to any he served up when nailing down the No 7 shirt during the league.

Earmarked as a player with the potential to make it at senior level after he excelled on the Cork minor team that effectively threw away a Munster semi-final against Limerick in 2015, Coleman's smooth transition to the top flight shouldn't come as any great surprise.

Still, his performance last Sunday probably surpassed all expectations, and it's fair to say not too many players have marked their championship debut with Cork in such scintillating fashion in the past.

He ticked all the right boxes in terms of composure, hunger and determination, not to mention sheer hurling ability, and perhaps the most abiding memory of his tour-de-force was his pinpoint crossfield pass, delivered under pressure close to the touchline, to the unmarked Patrick Horgan, which yielded a point early in the second half.

Shane Kingston and Darragh Fitzgibbon were also members of the 2015 Cork minor team, although Kingston missed the game against Limerick due to injury, and there would surely have been a different outcome had he been available.

As with Coleman, they would have been identified as future senior players two years ago, and they both emerged from the fray last Sunday with huge distinction.

Fitzgibbon played an amount of ball at midfield, invariably using it to good effect, while his blistering pace and ceaseless industry were other facets of his game that proved so important.

To illustrate the commendable input from Shane Kingston, one need only point to the fact that he finished with a personal tally of 1-4 from play, which speaks for itself.

The graduation of Colm Spillane - who hardly put a foot astray at corner back - and Luke Meade who scored three tasty points and worked tirelessly at wing-forward in the first half - to the top flight couldn't have worked out much better either, and it goes without saying the management's decision to give youth its fling paid off handsomely.

Back in 1999, Jimmy Barry-Murphy was at the helm when Cork had six debutants in the team to face Waterford in the opening round of the Munster championship, and the Liam McCarthy Cup found a resting place on Leeside that year, but it can be safely said Kieran Kingston won't be willing to embrace the notion that his new-look side can emulate that achievement just yet.

It was essentially an outstanding team effort that laid the platform for Cork's unexpected, but fully merited win, as there wasn't a single player who didn't pay his way over the course of the 70 minutes.

It was great to see Seamus Harnedy and Conor Lehane, who had possibly his best ever game in a Cork shirt, which is really saying something, performing to the peak of their powers in attack where Patrick Horgan and Alan Cadogan also made a telling impact.

Bill Cooper made his presence felt at midfield in the second half when Mark Ellis really came into his own at centre back, while Damien Cahalane's excellent containment job on Seamus Callanan was one of the big positives of the day from a Cork perspective

Given how disastrous last season was, nobody saw this performance coming from Cork, all the more so since their league campaign this year did little to suggest their fortunes were going to take a significant turn for the better.

What they produced against Tipp, however, will have made everyone sit up and take notice, and there is justifiable cause to believe they are back as a force to be reckoned with in the wake of it.

But the road ahead remains laden with pitfalls, and, as the saying goes, one swallow doesn't make a summer, so Cork must still be regarded as long-shots to collect a championship trophy this year.

At the same time, that prospect doesn't look as improbable now as it did before the ball was thrown in at Semple Stadium last Sunday.

Corkman