AFTER a frustratingly familiar exit from the championship last winter, Cork have returned to the fray with a rejuvenated panel and a clear game-plan.
That's why their opening league games with Waterford and Tipp have been fascinating. U20 graduates Shane Barrett, in the Déise win, Daire Connery and Alan Connolly, who followed up his brace of goals the first week with a classy point in Thurles, have looked the part; Niall Cashman and Billy Hennessy started both matches; Patrick Collins has been very controlled between the posts as Anthony Nash's replacement.
While Patrick Horgan remains one of hurling's deadliest forwards, Seamus Harnedy didn't feature in Semple Stadium, and Alan Cadogan was a sub the first day, though his tally of 0-3 and general work-rate against Tipp hinted at a return to form. Damien Cahalane has been very solid to date too, but this team now belongs to the players in their early to mid-20s now.
Mark Coleman was both centre-back and quarterback in the two ties, with the Rebels utilising a high percentage of short puck-outs and moving the sliotar through the lines from defence.
Darragh Fitzgibbon, Robbie O'Flynn, until his hamstring injury at the weekend, Niall O'Leary, Tim O'Mahony, all 24 this year, and Luke Meade, due to turn 25, have been very prominent. They're fast, skillful and hungry. Hence the new tactics
Cork did go for goal through the league in early 2020, raising 10 green flags in five games, but that didn't translate to championship. They've hit seven goals in games already in six days and have created at least seven more chances. It's a refreshing alternative to popping points when a potential overlap is on the cards, which was Cork's default setting in the past decade.
The goals were why Cork should have departed Thurles with a win instead of a draw. Ultimately it was the high free count that cost them.
Five of the 10 frees converted by Jason Forde came from calls against Cork players in possession in their own half. To be fair to referee Johnny Murphy, the running game greatly increases the chances of defenders over-carrying when the opposition pushes up, and there's clearly a move to tighten up on 'thrown' hand-passes.
Still, the Limerick official was extremely in his interpretation of the rules for calls in Conor Cahalane, whose hurley was being pulled as he was deemed to have thrown the sliotar, and Eoin Cadogan for steps.
In such a tight game they were critical. Overall the tally was 22-9 in Tipp's favour, which didn't reflect the balanced nature of the contest at all.
By the same token, Jason Forde's monster equalising free came because of a Tim O'Mahony pull under a puck-out when Tipp were initially going to only get a sideline. While Cork supporters' annoyance at those frees was understandable, better discipline is also crucial.
If Donal O'Grady's addition to the backroom can be seen in the support play from defence then hopefully it also translates to fewer frees conceded.