CORK HEAD INTO their Division 1A meeting with Limerick in fine fettle with two wins from two in the bag.
Plenty of soul-searching took place on Leeside over the winter after they were dismantled by the Treaty in the All-Ireland final.
Scoring exhibitions against Clare and Offaly have seen the Rebels put up a combined tally of 6-55. Kieran Kingston has spread the minutes around his squad, with the fight for places up front particularly fascinating.
Cork chose not to enter a team into the pre-season Munster Hurling Cup, so Kingston is viewing the league as an opportunity to assess his talent.
“You are trying to build a panel,” said Kingston. “These few weeks are very challenging, with Fitzgibbon Cup, we had guys playing last Tuesday and Wednesday.
“We have Ciaran Joyce playing with the Freshers this Tuesday coming, so it is important you have a panel you can call on for these games, in particular during this pre-season. We have a good panel and we are happy with the panel we have.”
Cork have used 26 players inside their opening two games. Kingston made six changes from the first round as Ger Millerick, Rob Downey, Alan Cadogan, Padraig Power, Shane Barrett and Ciaran Joyce dropped out, largely due to injury and college commitments.
Former AFL man Mark Keane made his league debut and fared well after his switch to wing-forward. He was heavily involved in the opening goal of the game, forcing a turnover and seeing his shot saved before Conor Lehane turned in the rebound, before adding two points in the second period.
His aerial ability, running power and use of the ball makes him a useful option on the half-forward line. He provides Kingston with a different option to the other forwards they possess.
“We gave Mark a couple of days off, but we were training Tuesday and Thursday and Mark was in with us those nights,” remarked his manager.
“So that is a sign of how much he wants to be involved, he took a day or two out, and then was back in the saddle with us on Tuesday night. Because of that and because what we saw in training, we said we’d give him a start and I thought he put in a really good shift.”
Jack O’Connor has been introduced off the bench in successive games as Cork monitor his load given his recent UCC Fitzgibbon commitments. Patrick Horgan made his seasonal debut as a substitute against Offaly as he eases his way into the campaign.
Conor Cahalane and Robbie O’Flynn worked hard on the flanks before being replaced, while Shane Kingston has started the season in electric form, shooting 2-8 to follow up his nine-point haul last week.
“A couple of lads got knocks today. Conor Cahalane played college hurling during the week, Robbie O’Flynn hasn’t a lot done he’s only back with us the last few weeks.
“In these conditions it was very heavy going out there. 76 minutes of a game plus the warm-up, it’s very heavy on the legs so it’s important to give lads a rest when they have a lot going on and try other guys on the panel.”
Conor Lehane has returned to the panel after his omission in 2021. He was used on the half-forward line against Clare and in the corner versus Offaly, where he showed flashes of brilliance by scoring 1-2, although he didn’t last beyond the 52nd minute in either game.
Kingston also took a look at a number of recent graduates from underage sides in the form of Daire O’Leary, Tommy O’Connell, Sam Quirke and Colin O’Brien. O’Leary was replaced at the break after losing his battle with Eoghan Cahill, while the other trio were on the field for the final quarter.
“I was happy with every fella that put a shift in today. Fellas that didn’t, will be reviewed during the week and we’ll see how we can improve.
“We’re very much trying to build the character of this group that every time you go play with Cork we expect a shift, we expect a performance and let the result take care of itself.”
Of course, it’s wise not to read too much into a couple of February league wins, but the strength of the panel Cork are putting together cannot be ignored.
With the Munster SHC opening up against Limerick on 17 April, the Rebels have nine weeks before they need to be at full pelt.
“The league is that little bit more challenging because it’s really your pre-season,” adds Kingston.
“Historically you’d have your league campaign and then four or five weeks off, you’d have another pre-season before championship, lads would go back to their clubs and play a couple of game and then you’re back in with the county again.
“This time it’s just college, league and then you’re into championship. So this is really your pre-season for championship.”
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On the other hand, Offaly must regroup and go again following defeats to Cork and Galway by a combined 36 points.
It was always going to be a major step up for a team who were playing in the hurling championship’s third tier last summer. Shipping two goals inside the opening three minutes put the game out of sight almost as soon as it had started.
It rounded off a tough weekend for Faithful boss Michael Fennelly after watching his club Ballyhale lose the All-Ireland final with a last-second goal on Saturday.
“These teams are at a higher level and if you make a mistake, you’re punished,” he said.
“It’s very difficult if you are punished within that split second and they get a goal or a point. It’s just very hard on the team in general. Compared to last year, you get away with making some of those mistakes and you’re fine.
“You can’t go from not competing at underage finals to be able to compete against teams that are at Liam MacCarthy level to be honest about it.
“The structures are starting to be put in place, GPOs (games promotion officers) are being put on the ground.
“So I think there’s a long road for Offaly but you have to start somewhere and these lads are putting in huge shifts. They’re genuine, they’re honest and they’re trying their best to be fair to them.”