AT THE outset of any hurling championship season, a primary objective of any of the leading counties is to be in Croke Park for the real business end of the All-Ireland campaign.
By achieving that objective you are giving yourself a decent chance of landing the game’s biggest prize but, at the same time, you could say that the really hard work is only beginning now.
Having come through the qualifiers as against winning your provincial championship makes you that little bit more battle-hardened.
Conversely, you will be after two or three games, being active week after week and you will be going up against a team that is well-rested after a three-week break.
In the past, that, of course, has militated against some teams and resulted in them being a bit ring rusty against a side that has a lot of momentum behind them after a few wins in the qualifiers.
Cork are now in that position, two fine victories recorded against Clare and Dublin respectively and a feelgood factor has to be prevailing in the camp.
At the beginning and after a poor finish to the league campaign not too many might have predicted that they would get into the big house for an All-Ireland semi-final and, hopefully, a final.
But as former Tipperary great, Nicky English stated in last Saturday’s Irish Times, Cork are an improving package who will relish the wide-open spaces of Croke Park if they get there.
Well, they are there now after seeing off Dublin in Thurles last Saturday.
It was a victory that you would describe as a job well done in the end but, at the same time, it wasn’t a performance that you would be raving about either They started off sluggishly and could have conceded an early goal or maybe two and they let Dublin back into the contest in the third quarter.
It might have become very uncomfortable if Dublin had converted a goal but due to the fine work in the Cork defence again that looked very unlikely.
Patrick Collins continues to grow in stature with every game, his puckout strategy is now much better while Robert Downey has surely nailed down the full-back spot in front of him.
Ger Millerick has really settled into the operation and is doing what he’s best at and is recognised as such, an excellent man-marker and fast turning into a key player on this team.
This is a very young team with an experienced dimension to it as well and for a team to be successful that blend has to be right.
And that’s where Patrick Horgan and Seamie Harnedy come into it. This duo are huge players on this Cork team and if they are going well the younger players around them draw a lot of inspiration.
Against Limerick in the opener in Munster they were off the pace a bit but against Clare and Dublin last Saturday they burst forth with some huge scores that really lifted the entire team.
Harnedy’s quartet of points illustrated that he’s hurling at the top end of his game again and that’s what’s required from this great warrior.
Horgan, likewise, was superb on Saturday, a haul of a dozen points that included some exemplary free taking and a hat-trick of fine points from general play.
One of the real success stories of Cork’s season to date has been the sublime form of Jack O’Connor and you could state exactly the same thing where Tim O’Mahony is concerned.
The latter’s goal was a joy to behold, its timing was perfect. An Olympic sprinter would have been proud of how his lightning-fast pace left the Dublin defence looking rather bewildered at each other.
Shane Barrett and Alan Connolly contributed again on the board after being introduced and Barrett, in particular, is really putting it up to the selectors.
Unquestionably, the team is far better balanced now, there’s a far greater cutting edge to the team which was lacking in previously and there’s an ability to respond to danger when it is posed.
Now it’s the old foe from Noreside next Sunday, a team well rested from their exertions in Leinster.
Kilkenny will always be formidable opponents, that’s their DNA but they are not the Kilkenny team that captured the four-in-a-row.
They are not as powerful a unit and in the Leinster final both midfielders, Ritchie Reid and Ritchie Leahy were withdrawn long before the finish.
Cork will give them the utmost respect but will not fear them in any shape or form.
There is a feel-good factor running through the three Cork hurling teams at the moment, from minor to senior and they seem to be rubbing off on each other.
The work-rate is far more ferocious now and whilst Limerick remain the favourites to retain the All-Ireland based on their second-half display against Tipp in the Munster final, there is reason to believe that there’s hardly a puck of a ball between the other three contenders.
And that is the opportunity now being presented to Cork, to get back into a final for the first time in eight years.
Playing Kilkenny any day is always a huge task but it’s a task that can be undertaken with cautious optimism.