This league carries the air of a murder mystery weekend. With two games to go in Division 1A, not only does nobody know the identity of the killer, there’s no clear idea yet as to who will be the killed. Clare start the weekend on top of the table, Kilkenny at the bottom. Yet a four-point win for Brian Cody’s side in Ennis tomorrow will jump them above Davy Fitz’s. If it ends up being Colonel Black and Amber in the study with the lead piping, nobody will be at all surprised.
In amongst it, Cork are doing their best not to be the pipee. A winter of grind and grumble left them casting around a touch come spring, hoping against hope that the good work of 2012 hadn't been unpicked already. Walking out of Croke Park last August, they knew they'd made a start under Jimmy Barry-Murphy. But a start was all it was and after a winter that has left them without – for one reason or another and to varying levels of outcry – Darren Sweetnam, Eoin Cadogan, Damien Cahalane, Niall McCarthy, John Gardiner and Donal Óg Cusack, it won't take much to make that start feel false.
Indeed, it hasn't taken much. The hammering of Tipp in the league opener was like pulling a Christmas cracker to find a genuinely decent joke inside – they didn't expect it and were highly tickled but you'd hardly say it was of lasting value. The draw against Waterford in freak weather was neither fish nor fowl. By the time last Saturday's 15-point turnaround defeat at home to Clare came down the tracks, plenty took it as confirmation of their worst fears.
To be a young side is one thing. To throw away a home game through the classic failings of a young side – not putting the opposition to sleep when you have the chance, not digging in to hold them off when they come marching back up the hill – is another. It cuts to the quick of everything Cork are trying to achieve, especially when the team that came from six points down last week to lead by nine was Clare, a side every bit as fresh of face as JBM’s. In fact, the average age of the Clare XV that took the field in Páirc Uí Rinn was just a shade over a year younger than Cork’s.
There are stats within stats, of course. Three of Cork's league debutants this year started in the forwards against Clare – Seamus Harnedy, Stephen Moylan and Peter O'Brien. Harnedy and O'Brien are 25, Moylan 23. Every one of Clare's 23-year-olds has at least one All-Ireland medal to his name at underage level, some of them have more. It's been a while since you could say that for Cork players.
Harnedy, by way of contrast, has been on the fringes with Cork for a couple of years and has bubbled up into the reckoning here on the back of a fine contribution to UCC’s Fitzgibbon triumph. O’Brien has got the leg up after a big contribution to Kildorrery’s Munster junior title over the winter. They may have been older than their Clare counterparts last Saturday night but they hardly compare for experience.
All three are in the side for tomorrow’s trip to Pearse Stadium, although it’s roundly expected that Cork’s named line-out won’t be the one in situ for the first whistle. Pa Cronin’s sojourn at centre-back looks like a flyer that will have run its course sooner rather than later. Nobody expects him to be stationed that far from goal for the summer.
One player who will be joining the fray soon having been lightly raced so far is the jewel of last year's league campaign, Conor Lehane. By this stage last March, he had already lit up the opener against Waterford and had stood out against Galway and Dublin.
So far in 2013, the only game he's started has been the Tipp cakewalk. Like Harnedy and William Egan, Fitzgibbon commitments have taken up some of his time but there must also be an element of JBM pulling tight on the reins to it. Lehane's card was unquestionably marked after the league last year. He's not named to start tomorrow but we'll surely see him at some stage.
"I would say they want him to be the player they need him to be in the championship this year rather than in the league," says former Cork manager and UCC man John Considine. "Last year he was coming into a young team. It wasn't as if he was coming into, we'll say, the 2007 team.
“There was burden on him straight away. People can say that he’s only young and that but there was an expectation there that he was the great white hope. It was as if people were thinking that this guy was going to carry Cork for the year, rather than leaving him to play his game. He’s had a long period of hurling now since minor and with under-21 and college as well so I’d just say it’s a case of managing your resources.”
Scrimping and saving. For all that Cork looked like they had unearthed some reasonably rare gems in the 2012 league, the All-Ireland semi-final against Galway told a hard truth. Lehane, Lorcán McLoughlin, Jamie Coughlan and Luke O’Farrell all started their afternoon on the pitch and ended it in the stand.
Galway squeezed the game tight and they were lost in the clinch. Cork need Coughlan’s shoulder injury to have cleared up by the summer, as well as Stephen McDonnell’s. Above all, they need them to be there at the end of games, not rueing their contributions from the bench.
So far, they have some convincing to do. Cork have visits to Galway and Kilkenny to round out their league campaign, a prospect that has them rank outsiders of eight runners with the bookmakers. They’re currently available at 20/1 for the league, bigger odds not just than the three teams below them in the table but also Dublin and Limerick from Division 1B.
Who knows? They may turn out to be the killer. Just now though, their name is some way down the suspect list.