dubs can pop cork

Frank Roche

THEY didn't end up with the trophy, but the O'Byrne Cup was still good for Dublin and hugely beneficial for Jim Gavin. Yet it was not, by the same token, the 'real deal'. That starts in Croke Park tonight.

Gavin blooded a raft of minor graduates, U21 hopefuls and twentysomething tyros during what transpired to be a pretty hectic O'Byrne Cup campaign, extending to five matches with a period of extra-time on an energy-sapping Parnell Park surface thrown in for good measure.

For any new manager, let alone someone in Gavin's boots with such an array of talent to choose from, these January competitions can be a godsend.

But as the Dublin boss reminded us several times, it was still a "pre-season tournament": even last Saturday's intoxicating climax against Kildare must carry a government health warning given the raft of players (primarily from Dublin) who weren't on the pitch.

Tonight will be different. Obviously, it's highly unlikely that we'll witness championship intensity, but Dublin must be prepared for heavyweight opposition because Cork are the undisputed benchmark for spring consistency.

The record books don't lie. They've won the last three Allianz League titles ... and that hat-trick was preceded by a Division Two triumph in 2009.

None of which would have been possible if Conor Counihan was treating the league with lip-service – a point underlined by his selection for tonight's HQ opener.

Counihan has named 11 of the team that started last year's All-Ireland semi-final against Donegal.

Theirs is a roll call of familiar names and even the obvious exception – Damien Cahalane makes his league debut at wing-back – has been in the news of late following his decision to forsake the Cork hurlers and concentrate exclusively on football this season.

Dublin have a more experimental look, but it's all relative. Three players will be making their NFL debuts: Kevin O'Brien at corner-back, Jack McCaffrey at wing-back and Tyrone native Paddy Quinn at wing-forward.

There are also starts for four players who featured in previous years but have yet to establish themselves as championship regulars: Jonny Cooper and Darren Daly in defence, the 'comeback kid' Declan O'Mahony at midfield, and Paddy Andrews at centre-forward.

Ergo, Gavin's first league selection is a blend of young and old, famous and fringe; but even the 'proven' brigade will have to prove themselves all over again. That's the beauty of having a new manager at the helm.

As if to underline that point, some of Dublin's best performers this past month were Pat Gilroy regulars.

Bernard Brogan may have been expertly marshalled by Ollie Lyons last weekend, but generally the 2010 Footballer of the Year has looked sharp in recent weeks; and the same applies to Diarmuid Connolly, who was rested against the Lilywhites.

They are both included in a potent inside line completed by Kevin McManamon.

Elsewhere, it will be intriguing to see how Dublin's revamped full-back line performs given that all three – Cooper, Rory O'Carroll and O'Brien – were tied to their colleges during the O'Byrne Cup and will be making their seasonal baptisms in Sky Blue. For O'Brien, All-Ireland winning U21 captain under Gavin last year, it's a particularly big night as this will be his first senior competitive start.

O'Carroll will obviously have a key role knitting this new-look unit together, especially given the prolific threat posed by Colm O'Neill, Donncha O'Connor and Paul Kerrigan.

Elsewhere, Dublin fans will be hoping to spy further evidence that McCaffrey is a senior star in the making – everything we have seen at underage level and during the past month points in that direction, but the bar is sure to be raised, physically at least, by the likes of Fintan Goold or Ciaran Sheehan.

Faced by Aidan Walsh and Alan O'Connor, it also promises to be a testing examination for Dublin's engine room, where options weren't exactly overflowing even before Denis Bastick's suspension.

Michael Darragh Macauley will have a pivotal leadership role alongside O'Mahony; if he can provide the gung-ho impetus from midfield, Dublin might just shade what promises to be an enlightening encounter under the Croker lights.

BOYLESPORTS ODDS: Dublin 8/11, Draw 15/2, Cork 11/8