First step in what will be a pivotal year for Cork footballers
McGrath Cup semi-final: Limerick v Cork, Sunday, January 6, Rathkeale, Co Limerick at 2pm, Ref: Derek O'Mahoney (Tipperary)
We may be just days into the new year but it already seems that the inter-county scene is ramping up with a number of hurling pre-season games already wrapped up and now the county footballers are preparing to step out from their winter hibernation to take on Limerick in Rathkeale this Sunday.
It is no secret that 2019 will be a huge year for Cork football after a series of really poor years have brought little or nothing in the way of joy for the lovers of the Blood and Bandage.
Cork are the current holders of the McGrath Cup and will look to again get some credible competitive games under their belts before the big stuff kicks off in February and while a test against Limerick will hardly be seen as a hurdle that Cork shouldn't master the truth is the performance, and the prospect of improvement is much more important this weekend than any result.
After losing the likes of Donncha O'Connor and Colm O'Neill to retirement as well as Aidan Walsh to hurling, Cork's management team will be keen to show that they have been scouring the county to bring in the best replacements currently plying their trade in every nook and cranny around.
The McGrath Cup will afford Cork management and fans the opportunity to see new blood that has been offered a competitive try-out and while the opposition in the coming weeks won't be of the calibre of a Kerry or Dublin, games against Limerick and either Clare or Waterford in a potential final date the following week may well end up being significant dates in the sporting lives of some of the younger eager to please players.
Playing for Cork was once one of the greatest honours that could be bestowed on a young Cork man however these days being called up to play seems to have become more of a burden than a privilege - players may well be reaping more rewards these days than they did in the past however the publicity, and when it comes to football it must be said mainly negative publicity, is definitely scaring off some hugely talented propositions.
If Cork can find the best 30 players to join, and more importantly buy into, what will be in large part a new look squad, then Ronan McCarthy's charges will make progress however if the new players don't make the most of the chances then neither they, nor the 2019 version of Cork football will see anything like the progress required.
From a local standpoint the upcoming game with Limerick will see a host of north Cork talent lining out with the likes of Mallow's James Loughrey and Mattie Taylor joined by Paul Walsh (Kanturk), Cillian O'Hanlon (Kilshannig), Tom Clancy (Fermoy) and Aidan Browne (Newmarket) in what looks like a relatively strong squad announcement in recent days.
Of course most of the bigger names will not feature this weekend but when all is said and done those that get to start and come on in Rathkeale will need to show they have something to add.
2019 will be a big year for Mallow's Taylor in particular as the hugely talented and versatile defender will be looking to push on after a 2018 campaign that saw him gain a few starts but never quite nail down his place.
Fermoy's Clancy is another that will hope to push on after a successful 2018 that saw him guide his local club to County glory and a place in the 2019 senior county championship however there will need to be more game time for this top quality defender if Cork are to progress
Loughrey may be technically classed as a veteran at this stage but still provides a solid defensive anchor at the rear while always good for a point or two going forward.
Cork's defence looks like it may well have a little more solidity to it this year but with Aidan Walsh gone from the middle and O'Neill and O'Connor gone too the focus in 2019 may well need to shift to a lack of a scoring threat up front.
Cork need to start bagging 1-14 or 1-15 a game in 2019 with next weekend a good opportunity to start off in a positive vane. Players like Brian Hurley and Mark Collins will be key to Cork's scoring power this season and while both may not get a start this weekend it is likely that both will get a chance to shine against the men in green.
Cork need a strong middle and this weekend we will likely see Ian Maguire command the central third. Maguire showed at the end of last season just what a talent he is and 2019 will provide the St Finbarrs' man the opportunity to show that on a much bigger stage.
Limerick will bring plenty with them on Sunday but should be nowhere close to what could be a strong Cork side looking to set down a marker right from the off.
Prediction: Surely a Cork win