WHAT a difference a year makes for Cork hurlers.
This time last year we finished the league campaign with no points and were facing into a relegation battle against Galway. Thankfully they won that, with probably their best display of the year, to retain their status in the top flight.
Now a year on they are into the knock-out stages of the league and are a side growing in confidence with every game. After defeats to Dublin and Kilkenny thoughts of many were turning towards relegation, but the words of Kieran Kingston all along are worth noting.
Yes, he was disappointed to lose the games, but more disappointing to him was the lack of consistency in their performance.
That returned, in style, against Waterford, and he certainly got more of the same yesterday.
Even when Tipp got the two late goals at the end of the first-half they didn’t panic and finished the half with a great point from Darragh Fitzgibbon to go in two points up. The same could be said in the last minute of the game, before injury-time, when Tipp got their third goal to level it.
Again credit must go to the Rebels, who kept their composure and Pat Horgan did, what he has been doing for some time, slotted over to secure the win. There has been a lot of talk about him in recent weeks, especially after his misses from frees, but anyone who doubted his commitment and his ability need only look back at yesterday’s game.
Quite simply he was outstanding and put in a Man of the Match showing and come the championship he will be one of the key players for the Rebels, have no doubt about that.
Let’s not forget that this was the All-Ireland champions we were playing yesterday, who hadn’t been beaten in the league to this point.
Of course, in theory, this game didn’t matter to them as they had already qualified for the knock-out stages. But you talk to any Tipp player and they will tell you they want to win every game and they didn’t come to Leeside yesterday to lose.
Like any champions, they don’t want to lose and want to keep winning and they will have travelled home unhappy with the loss.
But at the same time, nobody will be getting carried away with the win either, and Cork will be well aware of the challenge that lies ahead when they face them in the championship.
Pending on how both sides do in the play-offs of the league there is now a distinct possibility they could be facing each other again before that, but that’s for a different day.
So what changed from the Dublin and Kilkenny games to the last two displays? You have to go back to that word again – consistency.
In the first-half, against Kilkenny, Cork had played some great hurling and were a little unlucky to be trailing, But they never came out after the break and they were blown away by the Cats.
Against Waterford, again the Rebels started well, and the question was would they maintain it for the 70 minutes. They did and it gave the side a much-needed boost ahead of the crunch tie with Tipp.
Ahead of it if you asked most Cork supporters would they take a draw, you can bet that most would have said yes.
Twenty-five minutes into the game on Sunday and if you asked the same people that question the answer would have been different. At that point, the Rebels were well in control and looking good.
They had started with their now usual two-man full-forward line, with Seamus Harnedy and Horgan inside. Alan Cadogan came out to the half-forward line and Luke Meade dropped into midfield.
They varied this at times, with Cadogan going inside and Horgan drifting out. But the key element is Meade, whose work-rate and contribution there is immense.
With every game he is growing more and more into the role and could be a key player come the end of May in Thurles.
Lorcan McLoughlin worked hard alongside him in midfield and showed that we are starting to have competition for places there again, along with Daniel Kearney and Bill Cooper, who did well there in recent outings.
In attack also we now have options again, perhaps stronger than we have had for some time. Shane Kingston was injured yesterday and when Conor Lehane went off injured, after seven minutes, Darragh Fitzgibbon came on.
His pace and direct running would upset any team and he certainly did so against Tipp. Add in Michael Cahalane, who is showing signs of being back to his best.
When he came on he caught the first ball that came his way and was unlucky not to see a goal come from it.
But, for me, one of the most pleasing aspects of the last two games has been the marked improvement in the defence. The back six are starting to look well settled, with Mark Coleman and Colm Spillane, in top form.
Stephen McDonnell is looking sharp after his recent injury, with Damien Cahalane, Mark Ellis and Christopher Joyce all going well.
There is a long way to go and a lot can happen, but Cork are going in the right direction and that can only be a good thing
Roll on Limerick next week!