There was little at stake when Cork faced Limerick in the penultimate round of the Allianz Hurling League in early June.

Rebels boss Kieran Kingston seemed content to lull the champions into a false sense of security a month out from a Munster semi-final reunion – only Damien Cahalane was older than 24 in his starting XV and Limerick were more comfortable winners than the eight-point margin suggested.

Cork managed 2-19 that day to Limerick's 33 points but what stood out was their goals, both taken coolly by Jack O’Connor.

The 22-year-old UCC arts student also managed a goal against Waterford and 1-02 against Galway for a return of 4-03 in four league appearances.

Impressive stuff but could he hit the same heights in championship? Oh yes. The Sarsfields man picked off three points against Limerick, a goal against Clare (followed by a second yellow card) and another three in last weekend’s quarter-final win over Dublin.

No less an authority on forward play than Henry Shefflin has described his performances this summer as "electrifying".

Former Cork boss John Meyler was managing the county’s under 21s in 2017 and gave the young speedster his first start at the grade.

O’Connor missed a goal chance in the Munster semi-final against Waterford but then won an injury-time penalty that ensured a one-point win.

"He was lightning quick, had great skill and a turn," Meyler recalls. "Your typical nippy corner-forward.

"A bit raw and skinny in those days. But you could see, the minute he got the ball in his hands he was gone.

"Quiet and shy but a good lad. Mixes in well with all the lads. A likeable young fella."

The following July, O’Connor hit 1-02 in what was the last Munster U21 final but ended up on the losing side in the All-Ireland decider when a Liam Cahill-managed Tipperary reversed that crushing result.

John Meyler gave O'Connor his U21 and senior debuts

By then, Meyler was senior manager, and had given him a taste of adult inter-county action with a few minutes against Waterford and Limerick - the latter Cork’s most recent All-Ireland semi-final appearance.

O'Connor remained on the fringes in 2019 - and couldn't force his way onto UCC's Fitzgibbon Cup-winning team - but made his first championship start under Kieran Kingson last year, scoring a point and setting up a goal against Dublin in the qualifiers.

Now, he's a key weapon in the Rebel attack.

"When I got involved in the senior setup in 2018 we gave him more game time," said Meyler. "He came on against Limerick in the semi-final and got a point, did really well.

"Three years on, he’s more mature, he’s stronger and he’s tackling more. He has done well this year and can only get better. It was just a matter of time."

O’Connor has exceptional pace, and the ability to skin his man and finish from a tight angle, as Clare discovered to their cost.

But the league goals against Limerick – a batted finish after leaving Richie English in his wake and a smart ground pull on a shot that hit the post – really showed the left-hander’s repertoire, which includes being willing to take a belt for a goal chance.

His two yellow cards against the Banner also illustrated a tenacity not always seen in younger forwards.

"He goes for goals as distinct from just tapping the ball over, goes in that extra yard where you are going to get a clatter but he does it," says Meyler.

"He has got some different types of goals, which shows he is developing from that point of view.

"He’s not 6’4 like Gearóid Hegarty but he brings something different to the Cork forwards and complements Hoggy (Patrick Horgan) as well.

"He has great movement and a lovely sidestep to go around a corner-back. There’s going to be more pressure on him against Kilkenny, their corner-backs are always tight and marking from the front, so that’s a new challenge.

"Picking your time when to go for the goals and when to take your points is experience as well."

Daniel Kearney’s decision to step away from the panel last year left O’Connor as the only representative from six-time Cork senior champions Sarsfields.

O'Connor made his senior championship debut for the Glanmire club aged just 17 in 2016, and the following year, a stunning goal against Glen Rovers was the spark for a stellar season as Sars reached the semi-finals.

"Jack was a key part that year," Kearney tells RTÉ Sport. "He got 3-15. For a fella in his second year, he really lit it up and we knew the type of player he could be then.

"It's very hard to tell with an underage player. You knew he was one of the better fellas but when he came onto the senior team it was his pace and how direct he was.

"He always just went for goal. With his speed he has a formula that’s tough to stop. I haven’t played with too many forwards who are that direct and it’s what every manager looks for. Any time he gets a chance but it doesn’t go in there’s usually a rebound and a point, or a 65, so he’s right to keep going for the jugular.

"He’s quiet and shy but extroverted on the field. He has a good attitude and plays with a bit of a mean streak, which is good for a forward.

"It’s not just his offensive game but how tuned in he is when Cork don’t have the ball is a big part of his game as well. He has a great appetite to tackle and work."

Daniel Kearney (L) and and Eoin Quigley after Sarsfields' last Cork championship win in 2014

But what about Kilkenny corner-backs who eat young forwards for breakfast?

"I'd prefer to be a quick fella than a big fella with the big spaces in Croke Park.

"The Kilkenny backs wouldn’t be notoriously quick he’ll be full of confidence that he’ll be able to take them on and get a goal or two.

"This seems to be his breakthrough year. Hopefully he can keep the momentum going and break the bad run Cork have had with semi-finals over the last couple of years."

Sarsfields chairman Tadhg Murphy is a brother of Bertie Óg - both All-Ireland winners in their day - and knows O’Connor better than most – Jack’s mother Marianne is his niece.

Murphy describes his grand-nephew, who dropped in to surprise the kids during the club’s summer camp this week, as "very unassuming".

"He’s a guy that doesn’t look for the limelight, just gets on and plays his hurling.

"We’re very proud of him the way he’s performing. It’s great to see him doing well and heading to Croke Park for an All-Ireland semi-final.

"Tickets are like gold dust. There’s huge hunger to go up and see it, not just in Sars but right throughout the county. The buzz is back in Cork hurling, there’s no question about that."

Nine of Cork's 2018 provincial U21 winners started against Dublin last weekend

The buzz might be back but the second most successful hurling county’s wait for an All-Ireland title is now 16 years long.

Can O’Connor and his young colleagues beat Kilkenny and seal a first appearance in the big show since 2013?

"Him and the likes of Tim O’Mahony, Ger Mellerick, Sean O’Donoghue, Niall O’Leary, Patrick Collins have matured," says Meyler.

"They have no baggage and have been in All-Ireland and Munster (underage) finals. This is just another step forward.

"There’s a freshness about them that Jimmy (Barry-Murphy) brought before when he won the All-Ireland with the young lads (in 1999).

"Cork have done really well. The first half against Limerick they outhurled them bar the two goals before half-time and should have driven on. The potential was there in the second half but maybe the belief wasn’t and Limerick just closed it out then.

"They would have learned a lot of that. Against Clare they were really good and again against Dublin. They have shown progress but it’s going to be really tough.

"It’s 50-50. To beat Kilkenny you must outwork them. Fight for every ball as if it’s the last. Outrun and out-think them.

"I think if Cork outwork them they’ll beat them."

Follow the All-Ireland senior hurling championship semi-finals this weekend with our live blogs on RTÉ.ie/sport and the RTÉ News app.

Watch Limerick v Waterford live on RTÉ2 or RTÉ Player from 4pm Saturday, and Kilkenny v Cork live on RTÉ2 or RTÉ Player from 2.30pm Sunday.

Watch highlights of all the weekend's action on The Sunday Game at 9.30pm on RTÉ2.

Listen to live and exclusive national radio commentaries on RTÉ Radio 1's Saturday and Sunday Sport.

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