GIVEN the compacted nature of the inter-county championship season, preparation time was at a premium and for Cork hurlers the timeframe was tighter than most, given the late finish of the club season.
Such are the high levels required at the top level now; teams must be moulded over time and it can be difficult to make big leaps in a short period.
In 2019, Cork reached the All-Ireland quarter-finals, well-beaten in the end by Kilkenny, and there was an acceptance that a considerable improvement was needed.
While there was a notable uptick in goalscoring output during the league, Cork finished joint-fourth with Tipperary. Had they gone straight from the league to the championship, there may have been more potential to build on their work but instead any momentum was stunted by Covid-19.
Cork’s lack of preparation time compared to Waterford was shown in their Munster semi-final and, while getting a game under their belts helped to bring about a better display against Dublin, they fell against Tipperary in Limerick on Saturday evening.
It was a game that Cork could conceivably have won but, on a night when Tipp shot 18 wides, they still had sufficient depth and experience to dig out the victory.
It leaves Liam Sheedy’s side as one of six counties still left in the hunt for the All-Ireland and it’s interesting to see that five of those six counties were among the best six records in Divisions 1A and 1B of the league — the exception being Wexford, who finished second in 1B, behind Clare, who eliminated them on Saturday.
Tipp had the eighth-best record of the 12 top-flight league sides but, as the holders of Liam MacCarthy, their need to improve wasn’t as acute as the teams in the chasing pack.
While they did fall short against Limerick in Munster, they were better against Cork. They will need to pick things up further, but the important thing is that they are still in the mix.
Unfortunately, Cork are not, and the knock-on effect of that is that the county’s previous longest spell without an All-Ireland win — 1903-1919 — has now been equalled.
Like the droughts at minor (2001) and U21 (1998) levels, these are, in a sense, meaningless statistics — but for a wonder-point by Clare’s Donal O’Donovan in 2013, Cork would have stopped the clock at eight years — but they are also somewhat informative.
We mentioned above the goalscoring tally from the league — 11 green flags in five Division 1A games, with Waterford and Tipp next best on seven — but against that was the fact that the Rebels allowed 110 points, more than anyone else in the section.
In the championship, the goalscoring rate dropped to three in three games while 2-68 was conceded — almost an average of 23 white flags per game.
On Saturday, Cork deserved credit for staying in the game in the first half against a very strong wind as the rain fell and it was somewhat unfortunate that the conditions eased in the second period.
However, the half-time gap of two points was aided by the fact that Tipp had 12 wides and the Cork goal, scored by Patrick Horgan, came from a rare loose pass by the otherwise-excellent Michael Breen.
When Tipp went five ahead in the second half, Cork battled back impressively, with Séamus Harnedy on fire as he scored five points from play in the second half, but ultimately, Jake Morris’s goal killed Cork’s challenge. That and the earlier one scored by Jason Forde were created as opposed to coming from poor defending, whereas Cork didn’t look like cutting Tipp open in the second half.
Ultimately, there wasn’t enough time to get from where they were to where they needed to be.
The consolation, such as it is, is that it won’t be long before the 2021 season starts. Integrating some of the stars of Blackrock’s county win wasn’t feasible this year, but they will be looked at next spring and the players given their shot this year will hopefully be more mature and ready to kick on.
The problem is that, right now, the gap to the very best teams looks like a relatively large one and it won’t be easy to bridge.