THE National Football League has only ended a matter of days and we find ourselves leaping straight into the dog-eat-dog world of championship combat, as Cork head to Ennis for their Munster Championship opener on Sunday.
We are still getting used to this new inter-county calendar, and it still feels strange that the Munster Championship is going to be run off extremely quickly over the next few weeks, with the final earmarked for Sunday, May 7.
It starts with a bang, with Cork travelling to face old foes Clare in the familiar surrounds of Cusack Park this Sunday, in what could end up being a season-defining game for John Cleary’s side, in a number of ways.
Straight up, progress in Munster is on the line — that in itself should be motivation enough for the Rebels.
Losing in the opening round against a team that Cork beat by 1-8 to 3-10 at the same venue just over a month ago in Round 5 of the league will not do much for confidence levels.
Clare have just been relegated after spending seven long years battling away in Division 2.
Whether that tells us they are in decline or whether they are now a dangerous, wounded adversary remains to be seen.
The opening quarter of an hour is likely to tell a lot in this regard, as Cork will either stamp their authority early on proceedings or find themselves in a dogfight. Up in Ennis, we will be expecting the latter.
The second big factor is that the shadow of the Tailteann Cup hovers over this game for both teams.
Clare’s relegation means it is win or bust for them in terms of securing qualification to the All-Ireland Championship proper.
The eight provincial finalists, last year’s Tailteann Cup winners Westmeath, and the next seven best-placed counties from the recently completed league campaign will make up the 16 teams that will contest Sam Maguire this year. Clare’s seventh-place finish in Division 2 has little or no chance of being one of those seven, so their only route to the top is to beat Cork and Limerick in the next few weeks.
Cork’s route is less clear; as you would think it is likely they have two chances.
The direct route, by beating Clare and Limerick, would be the most appealing, for obvious reasons, but there is that safety net that fourth place in Division 2 might just be enough if it came to it.
It would probably take some extremely unlikely results in Connacht and Ulster, as well as a Cork defeat in either the quarter or semi-final in Munster to push Cork out. But still, it would be better to just control the controllables and secure a Munster Final berth and be done with it.
Cork will have been reasonably satisfied with how the league went, considering the opening-day defeat at home to Meath had us suddenly wondering whether relegation was on the cards.
Three wins, three defeats and a draw made for a B+ type level of campaign. The displays against Meath and Louth were certainly nothing to write home about, but they drew with Derry and came within a whisker of beating Dublin. That has to bode well for the upcoming campaign.
Tommy Walsh, Luke Fahy, and Chris Óg Jones would not have been in many pundits' predicted Cork first 15s at the turn of the year, but their performances in the league mean that they are now in prime positions to play starring roles in the championship.
Conversely, the likes of Kevin O’Donovan and Sean Meehan would have been seen as certs to start, but both only played bit-part roles in the league.
They will, no doubt, be chomping at the bit to get their hands on a single-digit jersey in the coming weeks, which can only be a good thing in terms of squad competitiveness.
The returning Ruairi Deane and Brian O’Driscoll have added much-needed experience, physicality, and guile to the half-forward line, while it has been great to see the likes of Killian O’Hanlon and Paul Walsh return to add heft to the middle eight too.
Clare only managed 98 points in seven games in the league, which was one of the poorest returns across all of the four leagues, with Cork’s 137 points far outgunning that total.
This would suggest that the Cork attack will have too much firepower for Clare, but John Cleary’s side will know they will have to bring their A-game too.