What a difference six months can make.

In February, as a new inter-county season prepared to take flight, we pondered the way forward for a Cork team that seemed at a low ebb.

In Kieran Kingston's debut season in the hot seat in 2016, they had been well beaten in Munster by eventual All-Ireland champions Tipperary and exited the qualifiers with a first Championship defeat to Wexford in 60 years.

Cork had lost all five group games in the Allianz Hurling League and only retained their Division 1 status with a play-off win over Galway.

"There are three or four teams ahead of us," goalkeeper Anthony Nash admitted at the time.

Fast forward just half a year and all is rosy in the Rebel garden.

After a solid spring campaign, Cork hit their stride in the Munster Championship, outgunning Tipperary, Waterford and then Clare to claim an unexpected and most welcome provincial crown.

Tomorrow, they face the Déise again at Croke Park, with a first appearance in the All-Ireland final since 2013 on the table.

Cork legend Jimmy Barry-Murphy, who won five hurling All-Irelands as a player and one as manger, was in his second spell in charge in 2013.

JBM believes his successor is due enormous credit for dispensing with some veterans and giving youth its fling this year.

"Cork is that kind of county. You always have very high expectations," he told RTÉ Sport.

"People want to win every year but I think any genuine supporter would tell you that this year has been a complete surprise to them and a pleasant surprise.

"Last year was Kieran Kingston’s first year on the job. Everyone’s first year is always difficult and a learning process, I found that myself.

"I think he was taking time to find his feet with the players, which he did fairly quickly over the course of the first year, and he realised he had to bring in younger players to give it a bit of impetus and build for the future.

"I’m not sure even Kieran felt it would be so good so soon but all the credit is down to him and his backroom team for having the courage to pick the young players and go with them.

"The temptation is to go with the tried and trusted but I think Kieran realised last year that he had to build for the future and if this year was to be a learning process so be it. But it’s been a million times better than that."

Corner-back Colm Spillane (aged 24), wing-back Mark Coleman (19), midfielder Darragh Fitzgibbon (20), wing-forward, and son of the manager, Shane Kingston (19)  and corner-forward Luke Meade (20) all made their first Championship starts against Tipperary in May and have been ever-present since.

Coleman is being talked about as a potential hurler of the year while Kingston (1-5 from play so far) and Meade (0-4) have ably aided the more established Conor Lehane, Patrick Horgan, Seamus Harnedy and Alan Cadogan up front.

Barry-Murphy marvels at the fortune of finding such a rich crop of debutants in one campaign.

"We all knew they were very talented lads but I’m shocked at the success they’ve had so far," he said. "From the get-go in the league this year they did well.

"It’s extraordinary to get so many together. You’d often get one player aged 19 but to get four or five at that age is remarkable.

"Mark Coleman has been incredible. I had seen him play underage and knew he was going to be very good in time but didn’t think it would happen as soon as this. But they’ve all been fantastic."

Speaking to RTÉ Sport this week, Nash backed the young stars to perform in Croke Park tomorrow.

"Age doesn’t really matter, if you’re good enough, you’re old enough," he said.

"We’re all good friends. The panel has a good bond and it doesn’t matter whether you’re the oldest or the youngest.

"It’s just another field, another set of goalposts. It’s a different stadium, a different atmosphere but those guys have taken to it like a duck to water.

"We’re very happy with the way they’re going and I’d be more worried about myself on the day!"

Barry-Murphy is optimistic that an unchanged side can use the open spaces at Headquarters to book their place in a September 3 decider against Galway.

"I’m very hopeful," he said. "Waterford have a very good record against us in recent times.

"They are defensively very strong and tenacious, very united with some brilliant individuals, but I think pace is our strength and Croke Park should suit us.

"I hope it’s an open game, we get the chance to play the type of hurling we’re good at and that the players can express themselves."

Live coverage of Cork v Waterford in the All-Ireland SHC semi-final on the Sunday Game, RTÉ One from 2.15pm.

Live radio commentary on that game plus updates on Cork v Dublin in the MHC semi-final on Sunday Sport, RTÉ Radio 1 from 2.00pm.

Live blog on the day's hurling action on RTE Sport Online and the News Now App from 1pm.