Despite a packed casualty ward featuring key players like Patrick Horgan, Seamus Harnedy, Darragh Fitzgibbon, Mark Coleman, Tim O’Mahony and more, Cork have managed to put together an impressive winning streak.
Granted they’ve had the majority of their Munster Senior Hurling and Allianz League games at home to date but it’s a positive habit to build up with a new manager at the helm, especially with a host of newcomers.
The challenge for Pat Ryan and his selectors will be narrowing down their options for championship at the end of April. Brian Cody famously said he wasn’t worried about a settled team once they had a settled spirit when Kilkenny were in their pomp, the ferocity of their training ground games translating into All-Irelands. It’s pretty tricky to get that balance between stability and hunger right though.
Ryan guided the Rebels to successive U20 titles so is well-tuned in to the potential of the rookies. Eoin Downey and Conor O’Callaghan look in pole position to grab defensive berths, Tommy O’Connell is maturing with every game as a half-back or in midfield, and Brian Roche’s honesty and work-rate means he’s certain to get championship game time.
Up front, the returning Deccie Dalton is the most viable starter on experience and physicality but Brian Hayes, Padraig Power and Seán Twomey will be in the mix too.
Shane Barrett has been involved since 2021 but is only 22 this year and looks very sharp so far on the back of an excellent Fitzgibbon Cup with UCC.
Why would the new set-up just revert to type though?
Without going down the road of ‘starters and finishers’, a deep panel is helpful in the Munster round-robin series. And with an influx of young guns, Ryan and co might opt to vary their approach as the games roll on.
The only counter to powerhouses Limerick have kept faith with their marquee names throughout their reign. John Kiely has never made change for the sake of it but on Leeside the management have to shake things up or face the same disappointment.
Cork beat a weakened Treaty in the league opener but since then they've beaten Clare and Galway without much fuss and will be expected to account for Westmeath and Wexford too, putting them into the last four of the competition.
Cleary, Brian Lohan and Henry Shefflin didn't put out teams on a mission to get the better of the champions this early in the season. They were bloodless affairs in contrast to their enthralling battles in 2022. Giving Kyle Hayes and Barry Nash the freedom to collect the sliotar in acres of space isn't a winning formula.
Shane O'Brien, Colin Coughlan, Mike Houlihan and Adam English are in the mix for championship, plus they've Cathal O'Neill to come back in.
Limerick won the league in 2019 and '20 and probably will again if they're motivated. Would Cork want to have to beat the Shannonsiders next month in a final so close to summer?
The decision to release all the fit hurlers back to their clubs for the opening round of the RedFM Leagues this weekend is sure to draw a few extra supporters out to catch the action.
Obviously, players with niggles won’t be risked with inter-county games against Wexford and Clare on the horizon, but still, it makes the programme more interesting.
Douglas host Erin’s Own at 4pm on Saturday with Alan Cadogan likely to start after being marked absent with Cork lately while Sars host Kanturk at the same time where a good showing from Jack O’Connor would be encouraging.
Other matches worth a nose on Sunday are Fr O’Neill’s v Charleville, 12pm in Aghavine, renewing their modern rivalry, Newtown against county champs St Finbarr’s in Division 2 at 11.30am, and Ballincollig stepping up a level at home to Glen Rovers at 2.30pm.
There’s a cracker in Division 5 on Sunday morning, 11.30am, when Castlemartyr host Dungourney, who they are amalgamated with at underage as Kiltha Óg. Senior centre-back Ciarán Joyce and U20 ace Jack Leahy could be in opposition here, though Ben O'Connor's U20 squad have Munster championship on the horizon.