AS a return to form, Patrick Horgan's display against Tipperary couldn't have been more emphatic.
We're talking a Daniel Craig in the James Bond reboot level of restoring the faith. It's not an exaggeration to say Horgan's future in Rebel red hinged on a big display. And he was cooler than Bond in a tux to twice give Cork the lead in injury time.
In his first two league games he scored 11 points, two from play, and managed one in the Waterford win, one of two matches in a row where he was benched. Last Sunday he rattled over 0-15 and four from play, three of which were arched over in the last quarter when the game was there to be won. Obviously it was in a lower-stakes environment of the league, but there were shades of the Glen's county final victory over Erin's Own last October when Horgan shot five points in a row in a grandstand finale.
That will surely be enough to quieten those arguing Horgan shouldn't be guaranteed a starting berth for the Cork hurlers, the sceptics who suggest he doesn't contribute enough outside of his frees. Interestingly he wasn't on duty from placed-balls initially against Tipp, with Conor Lehane, who did well against Kilkenny and Waterford in Horgan's absence, clipping over the first free from close-range before limping off with a hamstring injury.
Horgan did miss a free in the first half but he was typically clinical when splitting the posts, including an extremely tricky effort close in by the covered stand at a very tight angle. Whatever way you stack it up, 0-15 is a staggering haul.
Horgan's efforts reminded me of the group stages of the Champions League when RTÉ pundit Eamonn Dunphy declared Lionel Messi was 'finished' only for the Barca wizard to fire a hat-trick against Man City.
That's not to say the Glen talisman didn't deserve to be dropped for those couple of league games. It was the young guns who fired Cork to that encouraging opening league win over Clare, and the veteran was sluggish in the shock loss to the Dubs. Accepting he was brought in when the game was over, Horgan didn't light it up in Nowlan Park either – and a clip was doing the rounds of him failing to try and halt a Kilkenny defender clearing his lines as evidence of major issues.
Against Waterford Michael Cahlane was the first forward in to take over from Alan Cadogan, even if Horgan was lively in the last quarter and chipped in a fine point.
An injury to Shane Kingston opened the door for the selectors to bring him back into the fold against Tipp, though there had been a suggestion Cahalane would get the nod. Kingston was named but you could tell from the body-language in the warm-up that Horgan was in. His touch was sharp and as he went through the routine he threw a series of the exact type of left and right shimmies that bought him the space to land the winner at the death.
Hopefully the headline-grabbing brilliance was enough to ensure the 28-year-old is front and centre of a real tilt at this league title. Horgan hit 0-27, seven from play, in the regular league despite two games as a sub, to go with 2-27, 2-9 from play, in January's Munster Hurling League. A tally of 2-54 and counting and it's only March...
While there's no question that Horgan needs to be a leader from the front in terms of hooking, tackling and work-rate, his undeniable class makes him irreplaceable.
Cork are well capable of defeating Limerick in the quarter-final. They'd then face Waterford or Galway in the semi and one of Kilkenny, Tipp or Wexford in the decider if they made it that far.
It's bonus territory now for Kieran Kingston's side, as avoiding relegation and blooding the new generation were the league priorities, but why not go for glory when an All-Ireland is clearly out of reach?
Patrick Horgan 0-27 (0-19 f, 0-1 65), Conor Lehane 0-20 (0-11 f, 0-3 65), Shane Kingston 1-7, Alan Cadogan 0-10, Luke Meade 1-6, Darragh Fitzgibbon 0-7, Seamus Harnedy 0-5, Bill Cooper 0-5.
Patrick Horgan 2-27 (0-18 f), Shane Kingston 2-12, Alan Cadogan 3-7, Conor Lehane 0-12, Daniel Kearney 0-12.