Progress must now be maintained
Noel Horgan runs the rule over the forthcoming National Hurling League and sets out what Cork must do for it to be considered a success
When the Cork hurlers contested the NHL final two years ago, they were warmly fancied to bridge a gap stretching back to 1998. Having reached the All-Ireland final in 2013, which was lost to Clare in a replay, and lifted the Munster title the following year, they were rated a bit above Waterford - whose progress to the league decider from Division 1B had surprised most observers - at the time.
To say that things didn't go according to plan for Cork would be a gross understatement, as they shipped a a ten-point drubbing - a result that caused serious doubts to surface regarding their prospects of making an impact in the subsequent championship.
Such doubts proved to be well-founded, as they were beaten again by Waterford in their opening outing in Munster before Galway shattered their All-Ireland aspirations at the quarter-final stage, running out unflattering winners by twelve points.
Developments in 2015 prompted manager Jimmy Barry-Murphy to vacate the hot seat with a year still to run in his tenure, obviously believing he had gone as far as he could go with the team.
With a new back-room setup, headed by Kieran Kingston, in place, the hope was that Cork might be capable of arresting their slide last year, but, as things transpired, their record during the past twelve months appeared to confirm that they are firmly berthed in hurling's lower echelons at this juncture.
In nine competitive outings between league and championship, the Rebels came up trumps just twice - against Galway in relegation play-off and against Dublin in the first round of the All-Ireland qualifiers at Pairc Uí Rinn.
In fairness, they performed well in a couple of league games, and they were very unlucky to lose to Kilkenny by a point at Pairc Uí Rinn, while their win over Galway up in Salthill was fully merited, suggesting that things were beginning to shape up promisingly in the lead-up to the championship.
True, they had scarcely raised a gallop in the last league outing in the group stage against Tipperary at Thurles, but that was a dead-rubber fixture from a Cork perspective, as they were already out of contention for a place in the play-offs
That game was sandwiched by their narrow loss to Kilkenny and their victory over Galway, which meant they had measured up admirably in their last two outings of consequence prior to the championship.
They were completely out-gunned by Tipp, however, in their opening test in Munster, and their season ended on a real low note when they were eliminated from the All-Ireland race by unrated Wexford, who proved no match for Waterford next time out.
In light of how disappointing Cork were last year, it goes without saying they won't be burdened by any lofty expectations ahead of this season's National League, which gets underway next Saturday night when they take on Clare in Pairc Uí Rinn.
Over the past few weeks, the management have cast a very wide net in a bid to unearth a few new players, with a view to strengthening the squad, and the results have been reasonably encouraging, as several of the rookies put their hand up in the recent Munster League.
Cork won all five of their games in the pre-season competition, coming out on top in a keenly-contested decider against a fairly strong Limerick side at the Gaelic Grounds.
While it wouldn't have been a primary target for the men at the helm, and it won't count for very much in the overall scheme of things by the end of the season, winning the Munster League has to go down as some sort of confidence-booster prior to the commencement of the National League.
Regardless of how Cork fared out of course, their rating wasn't going to be significantly altered, but it's surely better to be heading into the NHL with a sequence of wins rather than a few defeats behind them.
Perhaps, the main positive to be taken from the Munster League was the admirable commitment and attitude displayed by the players on duty in every game, indicating they are hell-bent on doing all they can to restore pride on Leeside and trigger off an upsurge in the county's fortunes this year.
Notwithstanding how demoralising last year was, Cork have the nucleus of a useful team, and it would be a big help in getting things moving in the right direction if some of the new additions to the panel step up to the plate.
It can be safely said that no definite conclusions regarding the potential of the newcomers will be reached on the basis of what transpired in the Munster League, but the hope is that a few of them will provide further evidence they have something to offer in the more demanding environment of the spring campaign.
That Cork's first two games against Clare and Dublin are at home is just what the doctor ordered, as it's quite conceivable they'll get something out of both of them, which would be a badly-needed boost to confidence and morale, as well as giving them a bit of momentum ahead of their next two extremely daunting assignments away to Kilkenny and Waterford.
Tipp will be in opposite corner for Cork's last outing in Division 1A, and, even with home advantage, it's going to be no easy task to lower the colours of the All-Ireland champions, who inflicted two humiliating defeats on the Rebels last year.
Realistically, Cork can't be regarded as serious contenders for the league title, but as Kieran Kingston remarked after the Munster League final, the management's priority over the next few weeks is to build a strong squad with a blend of youth and experience, and hopefully have a balanced team that's going to work hard come the championship.