There were stages on Saturday night last where we seemed set for another night that would be best forgotten. In a tepid opening period, Cork were a bit better than okay, but their accuracy, or lack thereof, in front of the posts was stifling. A lot of those chances were individual efforts, shots taken under duress as opposed to being the result of a coherent strategy.
Watching the game back on TV, about twenty minutes in you can see Ciarán Joyce and Luke Meade trying to figure out what was going wrong as Limerick, as they do, seemed to have free players everywhere, streaming forward in the knowledge that the player is possession will, more often than not, make the correct decision. That’s what happens when you’re as good as Limerick are, when you have the players that they have and when you’re in year seven of a journey that has already delivered four All-Ireland titles.
The triangles they play to get themselves out of trouble are beautiful, structured and devastating when they eventually lead to a player breaking through the lines with momentum and oceans of space in front of them. At times Hannon, Hegarty, Morrissey and O’Donovan played with an ease that bordered on telepathy. Hegarty is a just phenomenon, a paradox; a giant blessed with grace, a machine operating on instinct. He and Hannon were incredible in the first half as Limerick played like the team they are and Cork looked like a team struggling to find their own rhythm.
The eight-point deficit at the break wasn’t a truly accurate representation of the difference between the two sides, but that’s what it was. There was a fear that it could get worse or just peter out to irrelevancy and leave the large crowd deflated, but Cork deserve great credit for the way they got themselves back into the game.
There was much more purpose to their play on the resumption as they began to find a bit of rhythm and began to play as a team. The interplay and support play was much better, the quality of ball being delivered inside improved significantly and Cork began to compete more aggressively for every ball, a feature perhaps best exemplified by Eoin Downey, Brian Roche and Tommy O’Connell.
Robbie O’Flynn, as he had from the beginning, was leading the charge and his injury cast a large shadow over the game. Thankfully, it doesn’t seem to be as serious as it looked initially. On Friday last I mentioned how the injuries of Coleman, Fitzgibbon and Connolly are casting a shadow over proceedings at the moment, and if O’Flynn was to be a long term absentee it would border on the catastrophic.
Patrick Horgan may provide the élan, as he did on Saturday, but O’Flynn is probably Cork’s most important forward. In 2021 his vast potential became more concrete, especially against Kilkenny in the semi-final, as his hard running, pace, movement and strength benefitted all of his colleagues up front. He is willing, and able, to take a lot of punishment and even in the final, a day to be forgotten, he fought the good fight. That form carried into last year and was again plain to see down the Páirc on Saturday. Hopefully we’ll see it again soon when the serious business comes around.
After O’Flynn had dragged Cork back into the game, they stayed in it. An improved appetite for work saw Cork hunt in packs and force a few turnovers as the individuals transformed into a more powerful collective. A pessimist may point to the departures of Hannon and Hegarty as coinciding with Cork’s improvement, but a realist may counter that, with a long list of absentees from both teams, this game was merely a tentative first step where keeping one’s balance was by far and away the most important thing.
It was nice that Cork hit the last three points of the game to win it, it was fitting that Conor Lehane hit the equaliser, it was encouraging that Cork held Limerick to 0-22 after leaking 0-16 in the first-half, and it was important that Cork dug out the win after overcoming a bit of adversity, that they stood up when it may have been a bit easier to fall down. It will be long forgotten by the time Cork head to the Gaelic Grounds, of course, but there’s a hell of a lot of water to be traversed before Cork cross the Shannon on the last Sunday in May.
They’ll cross the Shannon for the first time this year next Sunday as they head for Galway. With UCC again playing on Thursday night, it will again be a case of looking for green shoots as opposed to a wise old oak and more than anything Cork will be searching for consistent and honest endeavour and hoping to see the likes of Downey and Conor O’Callaghan further embed themselves into Pat Ryan’s thoughts.
Salthill will be a bit tighter, a bit wilder and a bit more testing but these are the challenges that need to be embraced if real progress is to ne made.