In the end, the game just slipped away from Cork on Sunday. It was there to be won in the final ten minutes and it was Limerick who pushed on. Defeat is always disappointing, but this one didn’t cut too deeply and it won’t be leaving any long lasting scars.
Everything about the day was flat; the atmosphere, the players, the game. That it was was quite understandable. The games against Waterford and, in particular, Tipperary were highs that we haven’t been used to. The short turnaround into knockout hurling can be tough, especially when the the very real threat of relegation was knocking at your door so recently. Two highs followed by a bout of sluggishness. It happens, and a team in development, like Cork, are particularly vulnerable to it.
The flatness was there from the start and Cork’s touch just wasn’t as sharp as it had been in recent weeks. Patrick Horgan’s first point came after he was initially blocked down by Richie McCarthy and it was a block that he should never have really got a chance to make. Limerick’s goal from David Dempsey came from a run along the end-line that should have been cut short long before it became dangerous. It was a succession of little things like this that had Cork five points down before they really knew what was going on.
But they rallied and played some excellent hurling to turn it around. Alan Cadogan looked dangerous every time he got the ball while Bill Cooper tried diligently to bring energy to proceedings, even if he wasn’t quite operating at his best. Luke Meade burst into the game with a wide, a point and an absolute beauty of a goal, after brilliant play from Darragh Fitzgibbon, Alan Cadogan and Lorcán McLoughlin.
Cork’s burst saw a five point deficit become a three point lead that should have been more before they fizzled out and the scores evened out again before half-time.
The second half was tit for tat for the most part with neither team really in control. Cork, however, were finding it difficult to secure primary possession and struggled to get to grips with Limerick’s system. Limerick often seemed to have a numerical advantage around the middle and they must have flooded the area (it was difficult to make it out properly from behind the goal).
As the game headed towards its conclusion, Cork also failed to get the rub of the green and were at the end of some bizarre calls from Fergal Horgan. Frees were given when an advantage might have been more beneficial while the over-carrying rule was harshly called on Patrick Horgan when a goal might have been on. Then, with the scores level, Brian Lawton was adjudged to have thrown the ball to Lorcán McLoughlin who duly pointed. It was an important two point swing and I’m not convinced it was the right call. Then again, I would say that I suppose.
When it came down to it, Limerick deserved the win and while another game would have been nice for Cork, maybe a break isn’t the worst thing either. Cork’s younger players have played an incredible amount of hurling since the turn of the year.
Luke Meade and Colm Spillane had long Fitzgibbon campaigns while Mark Coleman, Darragh Fitzgibbon, David Griffin and Shane Kingston were kept occupied with Freshers hurling too (yes, Freshers!). Michael Cahalane hasn’t even been back hurling a year and while he has made a good impact, he still needs time. It’s true that more games at the top level are important for all of these players’ development, but so is rest and freshness.
So what does it all mean now that the league is over for another year? I think it means that Cork are making progress. One of the most depressing aspects of last year was the lack of new faces on the panel. We were going to matches with the same team and the same problems yet looking for different results. The injection of youth has given a lift to the entire project. That’s not to say that there aren’t problems, but I do think there’s a better chance of finding solutions now.
What the league has also shown, and this was evident on Sunday, is that we need everyone. Cork cannot afford to be without Conor Lehane or proven, experienced players of his ilk come summer. Yes there are more options now but if Cork are to make an impact in the summer they will need major contributions from their established players.
There are plenty of things to worry about; the concession of soft goals, the full-back line as a unit, physicality, the ability to win our own puck-outs, the continued fascination with launching long range frees down on top of a forward line that doesn’t thrive on such ball, the thought of a fully tuned-up Tipperary in Thurles, and plenty others too. However, on the whole it was a productive league campaign and as spring turns towards summer the optimism outweighs the pessimism. And that’s progress.