GIVEN the nadir that was last summer's dismal defeats to Tipp and Wexford, this has been a decent league campaign already for Cork.
Granted the Dublin display was in keeping with the worst of recent years, characterised by lethargy, misplaced confidence, poor work-rate, intercepted puck-outs and sloppy defending. Even so, Kieran Kingston's side have grafted throughout the other matches with Clare, Waterford and Kilkenny – though they were brushed off physically in the second half of that loss.
There's a sense of purpose and direction about Cork hurling right now that is encouraging. No one is getting carried away. An All-Ireland, or even a Munster title, is currently out of grasp, but the Rebels are showing signs of improvement and could – if a few hurlers can be drawn from this year's minors – be genuine contenders before the decade is out.
Of course it's a reflection of how far Cork have fallen that even being in the mix for silverware by 2019 is a hope rather than an expectation. Still, that's the position Cork find themselves and at least the management team are dealing with reality instead of dreaming of the glory days.
Their youth policy has already paid off on a basic level.
At this juncture Colm Spillane, Mark Coleman, Luke Meade and Shane Kingston, though he's currently out with a hamstring injury, are probable championship starters, while Darragh Fitzgibbon, Michael Cahalane and David Griffin have gotten league game-time and will also be options come summer. Glen's Dean Brosnan has offered some much-needed heft and height lately. Up to a third of the line-up for the Munster quarter-final in May could be promising rookies.
There won't be a better crucible to test them than Thurles against All-Ireland champions Tipp. Cork never get too excited about the league, but this week at least it's an absolute priority. A win or a draw with the Premier in Páirc Uí Rinn guarantees Cork's top-flight status and a berth in the league quarter-final.
The Leesiders could actually lose and still stay up, provided Dublin don't beat Kilkenny in Nowlan Park. Tipp are comfortably on top of Division 1A with seven points, but the rest are within two points of each other, the Dubs on the bottom, Kilkenny ahead of them, and Clare in second, edging Waterford and Cork for now, on scoring difference.
Michael Ryan has the luxury of mixing up his starting 15 for this clash with the old enemy, but you can be sure he'll want to avoid a loss, especially as they coughed up a sizeable lead in their draw with Kilkenny. He'll hardly want to give Tipp's championship opponents a confidence-boost either.
While they won't be hopping off the ground, Tipp will be tuned in. Whatever combination starts expect a blend of defensive physicality and attacking spark ready to expose any Rebel frailties.
Given it's an international soccer weekend and there are few distractions on TV, on the back of a gritty win over Waterford, there will be a huge Cork support at Páirc Uí Rinn on Sunday afternoon. Few will go in expecting their young guns to shoot the lights out, but they'll demand the same honesty of effort evident in defeating the Déise.
Whatever about the result, putting back-to-back performances together would be a start for this team. And there's certainly room for the likes of Stephen McDonnell, Chris Joyce and Seamus Harnedy to up another gear.
The newcomers have hogged the headlines lately, but Anthony Nash, Damien Cahalane, Daniel Kearney, Bill Cooper, Alan Cadogan and Conor Lehane have had their impressive moments. It all that can be tied together, Cork should be capable of matching – if not beating – any of the best teams.
The subplot for this weekend is Patrick Horgan.
Cork's marquee forward throughout this decade was dropped for the Kilkenny and Waterford games, reduced to cameo roles, though he looked lively and hit a point the last day. There was probably an argument for bringing him back late in the league this season anyway, given a busy couple of years with the Glen, but he certainly wasn't moving well against Clare or Dublin.
Now that Kingston is injured he could be reintroduced, but then the selectors might prefer to have an extended look at Michael Cahalane, whose ball-winning was notable in Walsh Park. Horgan is a sublime free-taker but Lehane has been decent taking them in his stead.