THE Cork hurlers' season is on the line this weekend when they renew their modern rivalry with Clare this Saturday in the qualifiers. at 4.30pm in the Gaelic Grounds, live on Sky Sports.
The Rebels have met them in the championship nine times since 2013: winning six, drawing one and losing two, including the All-Ireland final replay. The draw also pits Waterford against Galway.
The most pleasing aspect of Cork's recent underage games was their attitude.
In the U20 All-Ireland final defeat of Dublin, Pat Ryan's charges targetted a positive start and ripped into their opponents in the opening exchanges. They were 1-4 to no score up after eight minutes and bullied the Dubs in the first quarter. Their work-rate never dropped, even if the Leinster champions rattled them across the second half.
The Cork minors blew Clare out of the water last week, striking for six goals and a staggering 40 points clear by the final whistle. While it was cruel on the young Banner hurlers, Noel Furlong and his selectors have instilled a steely edge into a clearly talented group. They kept hooking, tackling and blocking even when they were in cruise control.
To be fair to the Cork seniors, they knocked Limerick out of the stride early on, but when the Treaty were reduced to 14 for 10 minutes their intensity dropped. They need to show controlled aggression throughout this qualifier.
Shane Barrett and Alan Connolly fired the Cork U20s to glory, bridging a gap to 1998 in the grade. It was a huge lift to Rebel hurling, especially after losing the last two finals to Tipp.
Cork need to make the most of Barrett and Connolly's potential this weekend, particularly as by bringing both on in the loss to Limerick, they became ineligible for U20. Introducing Barrett made sense, as he got enough time to make an impact, rifling two points, but sending Connolly on in the dying minutes didn't.
Regardless, they both have a lot to offer now. Barrett is a strong candidate to start, to freshen up the attack, where there is a concern about Seamus Harnedy's fitness, given he missed three leagues games and didn't have his usual drive three weeks ago.
Connolly is a significant goal threat, raising four green flags in the league, and running hard in the U20 final to create Seán Twomey's key early goal. He might be too raw to make the starting 15 but he needs sufficient game-time here.
Whatever it takes, Cork simplyto be ahead at full-time against Clare on Saturday. The county cannot afford another high-profile failure.
Watching the Munster final last weekend, it looked like the Rebels were miles off that standard of hurling, yet we know they've the talent to compete with any team, even if Limerick are the clear leaders of the pack.
Recent championship results have been grim though. Following Munster titles in 2017 and '18 and just two losses from 10 games, the record is six defeats from 10 across 2019 to '21. And one of the four wins was against Westmeath.
Cork v Clare; Waterford v Galway.
Dublin v Cork/Clare/Waterford; Tipp v Galway/Cork/Waterford.
Kilkenny v Tipp/Galway/Cork/Clare/Waterford; Limerick v Galway/Clare/Waterford/Cork/Dublin.