FIRST hurdle safely negotiated -- relatively speaking. But it won't get any easier for Justin McCarthy's young Limerick bravehearts, who face another searching test of their credentials at the Gaelic Grounds tonight.
We say 'braveheart' but others might use the more dismissive term, foolhardy: they are pressing ahead with the inter-county dream against the most uncertain backdrop imaginable. They know there is virtually another panel -- more talented and infinitely more experienced too -- who are refusing to play for the current manager but who are willing to return if/when McCarthy gets the bullet.
We had a very similar script on Leeside last spring, and we know how that unfolded. The 'new' squad performed bravely against more vaunted opposition who weren't exactly motoring at full pelt, but inevitable defeats still followed.
Another unwanted McCarthy, Gerald, eventually bowed to the inevitable, and the militants returned en bloc, with the odd retiring exception. Who is to say it will be any different on Shannonside this year?
For now, the Limerick county board chiefs are sticking by their man -- and they will have been emboldened, up to a point, by the opening league performance.
They eventually lost to Galway by 1-18 to 1-11, but left the field with their honour fully intact. Against the odds, they led by a point at half-time and we will never know how they -- and their potentially rattled opponents -- would have reacted if Paudie McNamara had found the net from a penalty soon after.
McNamara's low shot was blocked and the home side had to satisfy themselves with a converted '65' instead -- a minor consolation when measured against the psychological windfall of a well-timed goal. The big irony now, of course, is that the Arthur Scargills of Hurling are next up to try their luck against Limerick.
Cork have been there, done the picket (three times) and don't want to go back there. All the vibes emanating from Leeside suggest a happy camp. Moreover, the benefits of an uninterrupted pre-season (moratoriums and big freezes aside) could be gleaned from their ultimately convincing 11-point win at home to Offaly.
True, as Denis Walsh suggested, the margin may have been flattering -- Offaly only trailed by two points after Shane Dooley's 58th-minute goal. But the second-half performance was resounding all the same.
Results, though, are only part of the spring equation for Walsh who continues his rotation policy with a raft of changes throughout the field. Two of the players called into tonight's team -- Sarsfields defensive duo Conor O'Sullivan and Ray Ryan -- were actually part of Gerald McCarthy's original '09 squad and are now sharing a dressing-room with the old Rebel guard.
Even more eyes, though, will be trained on another Sarsfields man, Michael Cussen, the colossus of former Cork football fame. Cussen scored a point coming off the bench against Offaly and will now make his full NHL debut -- albeit not as a twin tower since Aisake ó hAilpín, their goalscorer against Offaly, starts on the bench. Clearly, Cork aren't at optimum strength -- even less so when you factor in the still-absent Newtownshandrum brigade. But they should still have far too much ring craft for Limerick, who may have to hurl above themselves to repeat last week's single-digit defeat.
ODDS: Limerick 19/2, Draw 16/1, Cork 1/25