Rebels need to unleash their 'A' game
All-Ireland SFC Round 4 Qualifier: Cork v Laois, Saturday July 6, Semple Stadium, Thurles at 5pm
Diarmuid Sheehan ponders Cork’s Round4 Qualifier game against Laois where victory will put the Rebels into the rarefied air of the Super 8s
So, from seemingly nowhere, Cork's beleaguered, unfashionable and much maligned senior inter-county footballers stand on the door step waiting to be invited into the Super 8s, with Laois the only team standing in the way of what would be a pretty remarkable achievement considering all that this Cork side has gone through in the last couple of years.
Once - not so long ago - the perennial favourites for the League title, and seven-time All-Ireland champions, Cork now find themselves in Division 3 and seemingly struggling to get anything like a solid base from where to build a competitive side. But this year, midway through the ill-fated Division 2 campaign that saw them drop to their lowest ebb, Cork found something - and while it wasn't enough to save them in the second division, it was enough to bring back a feeling that there is more to life than getting turned over game after game.
A recent run that saw them win nine of 10 games - albeit plenty of those on the challenge circuit - has meant that Cork went into the Munster Final facing the old enemy, Kerry, perhaps not full of the joys of life but definitely on an upward curve.
Of course, we all know Rome wasn't built in a day and neither is an All-Ireland winning or for that matter a challenging side, so there really wasn't a shock that Cork lost out to the serial provincial winners in front of what was a reasonable attendance at Leeside headquarters considering all that has gone before.
Cork may have yet again come out on the wrong side of the final score line but there was plenty to appreciate from a Rebels point of view. First and foremost has to be that there was something of a belief back within the side, something that has been sadly missing for far too long. Cork, yet again, started poorly, something they will need to cut out of their game, but if they can regularly get off to a more solid start then there are chances.
This Saturday evening in Thurles Cork will go toe to toe with Laois for a place in the Super 8s with Dublin, Roscommon and probably Tyrone (who play Cavan) waiting for the winners - hardly the most appealing of propositions for a side still tentatively trying to find their feet at this elevated level of the All-Ireland Series, but Cork can't look forward to any of those potential tests as they first need to see off a Laois side that will feel they dodged some hefty bullets themselves with plenty of tough opposition in the qualifiers draw, namely Tyrone and Mayo looking for someone to open up on.
Cork will need to play well if they are to progress, and like Laois, (they obviously won't be saying this publicly) they too know they got what must be considered a really good draw.
Cork will need be more solid at the back than they showed against Kerry and they will need to push on from deep when the opportunities arise.
Ian Maguire and Ruairi Deane will likely again provide solidity in the spine with Killian O'Connor likely to again partner Maguire in midfield.
Deane was excellent the last day and should have all the drive in his veins to put in another massive effort this time round.
Mallow's James Loughrey and Mattie Taylor both showed really well the last day and both deserve another starting chance in the red this time round.
Up front Mark Collins, Brian Hurley and Stephen Sherlock may well cause more problems than Laois can handle with Collins and Hurley, in particular, likely to fancy their chances of some goals.
It isn't all positive from the Cork camp though as the treatment table always has a say - and we often don't know the starting 15 until they arrive out onto the pitch.
(Cork have named two changes to the team that started against Kerry with Thomas Clancy and Kevin O'Driscoll coming into the starting line-up in place of Tom Clancy and Paul Kerrigan.)
On the injury front it is hard to say right now exactly what is the status of Eoghan McSweeney (Knocknagree) and John O'Rourke (Carbery Rangers) after missing out on the Munster Final defeat to the Kingdom.
Cork lost Douglas's Nathan Walsh and Bantry's Deane during that narrow loss but Deane is the most likely to start against the Leinster side while Walsh may well not feature at all.
Cork have a woeful record since winning the All-Ireland in 2010 and haven't actually taken a serious Championship scalp since 2012 - and while Laois the side currently standing in their way, Cork, even if they win this weekend, still won't have addressed that statistic.
Cork head into this one as favourites and while that may seem to be a little harsh on the midlanders they are unlikely to complain too much as they will be looking forward to emerging from the long grass to take down one of the traditional heavyweights of Gaelic football. All that said, Cork have shown much more of late and should be at least a 50/50 bet for a place in the last eight.
Laois have plenty to offer underdog backers with some very talented and potent forwards, aligned with a tasty midfield pairing of John O'Loughlin and Kieran Lillis, while at the back Dennis Booth and Gareth Dillon, along with Robert Piggot at centre back and Patrick O'Sullivan on his shoulder, provide solidity and a good platform from where to attack.
The Kingston brothers, Donie and Paul, provide a serious threat to Cork's back lines with the siblings garnering half of their side's 20 points at the last time of asking.
Lillis, Colm Murphy and Evan O'Carroll also are also likely to cause problems as Laois go in search of one of the biggest wins in the county's recent football history.
Saturday evening in Thurles will be one of the biggest days in Cork football for the bones of a decade and while the men in red have plenty to be positive about they really do need to take this Laois side seriously if they are to progress to the next step - something that all Cork football fans would see as genuine progress.