Hurling & Camogie

Christy O’Connor: Limerick are a different animal since losing to Cork

The sides clash again in this weekend’s All-Ireland hurling semi-final

atrick Horgan of Cork is congratulated by supporters after the Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Round 3 match between Cork and Limerick at SuperValu Páirc Ui Chaoimh in Cork. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Patrick Horgan of Cork is congratulated by supporters after the victory over Limerick at SuperValu Páirc Ui Chaoimh in Cork back in May. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile (Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE)

SEVENTEEN minutes into the Cork-Limerick match in mid-May, just after referee Seán Stack had booked Eoin Downey and Seamus Flanagan, the linesman on the South Stand side in Páirc Uí Chaoimh alerted Stack to an incident that had just occurred on the sideline, where Stack subsequently issued yellow cards to Paul Kinnerk and Pat Ryan.

Just moments earlier, Kinnerk had come up in front of the Cork management to issue instructions to Diarmaid Byrnes before Ryan hit Kinnerk with a shoulder and told him, in no uncertain terms, where to go.

When John Kiely arrived on the scene shortly afterwards, Ryan instantly told Kiely to clear off back down to his technical area too.

Cork were seven points up at the time and were playing great stuff but the message Ryan was transmitting to his own players as much as to Kinnerk and Limerick, was that Cork were refusing to allow Limerick to come into their backyard and dictate matters.

Kiely spoke after the game of how hard it is to get messages into players on the pitch but that level of defiance from Ryan was as much an emblem of Cork’s attitude and approach on the night as anything they did on the pitch.

Cork were always trying to stay one step ahead of Limerick in every capacity. There were stages in the first half when Cork looked a mirror-image of Limerick, especially in how they were tactically bossing the match and ensuring it was played on their terms. That was even more of a shock considering how rarely that has happened to Limerick in the last five years.

Nothing reflected that more than the puck-out numbers; it’s almost inconceivable that a team could manufacture 3-23 off puck-outs against Limerick, including 3-15 off their own puckout. But Cork did.

Cork did most of their damage off their long puck-out in the first half when Declan Dalton and Seamus Harnedy set up on the Limerick 45-metre line, 10 yards behind Kyle Hayes and Diarmaid Byrnes.

With the breeze and with Patrick Collins’ puck-outs clearing the 45, Byrnes and Hayes were forced to go backwards to compete for that possession.

On a couple of occasions, Shane Barrett just launched himself into Byrnes with the sole intention of disrupting the Limerick defender’s ability to play the ball, allowing the sliotar to break through the cover. Cork’s movement and ability to hit those breaking balls in space also impacted Limerick’s zonal set-up.

Brian Hayes also had an aerial advantage on Barry Nash but playing their full-forward line so close to goal on their own puck-out enabled Cork to create more space between the Limerick half-back line and full-back line.

In turn, that restricted Limerick’s ability to shut down those corridors of space for Cork to attack with their speed from deep.

Playing three inside also impacted on Nash’s ability to cover outside the full-back line and be a more creative attacking threat or link-player higher up the field.

One of the downsides of Cork playing three inside forwards close to goal is that it restricts the possession numbers of Alan Connolly and Patrick Horgan; both only had nine combined possessions in that match, Connolly 5, Horgan 4.

That resulted in 0-4, almost a goal, a wide and three converted frees. What damage could Connolly and Horgan inflict now on Sunday if they could accumulate 15 or more possessions?

CORK created five clear-cut goal chances alone in the first half that evening but only took two, the other three of which were excellent saves from Nickie Quaid.

For the first time in this fixture in the last five seasons, Cork had more shots, 41-39. Their conversion rate was also off the charts, coming in at 76 per cent.

Cork’s conversion rate in the second half though, was incredible in the face of such adversity and Limerick pressure – it was 88 per cent, 80 per cent from play, in that period.

The possession stats of their forwards collapsed in the third quarter, but Cork still had enough possession across the game to cause the damage they inflicted; the Cork midfield, six forwards, along with Shane Kingston, made a combined 79 plays. The most critical aspect of that possession though, was how effective Cork were with it.

From 10 possessions, Darragh Fitzgibbon ended with five points from six shots. From 13 possessions, Shane Barrett scored 1-2, set up 1-3 and was fouled for four frees. Barrett has since gone on to launch himself into the conversation for Hurler of the Year, but everything Cork did that night in May comes up against the ultimate stress test now on Sunday.

Limerick have been a different animal ever since. They are a different beast altogether when they arrive in Croke Park.

Limerick are now in a place where Kilkenny were in their pomp ahead of All-Ireland semi-finals, following their usual routine to time their run to reach their peak when it matters most.

They’ll feel in an even better place again now considering how much competition there is for places. Limerick looked vulnerable in the Munster final when they were without Seán Finn, Seamus Flanagan, Peter Casey and Darragh O’Donovan, but they have consistently shown how players can always come in and just seamlessly fit into their system.

Nobody is irreplaceable. After only having four possessions, Cian Lynch was whipped off in the Munster final after 53 minutes. A half-back line that was terrorised against Cork looked indestructible again on that same afternoon of the Munster final.

Are Cork going to manufacture 3-15 off their own puck-out again now on Sunday? No. Are they capable of tearing the Limerick half-back line to shreds again? Cork have that capacity but it’s unlikely that Limerick will allow it to happen this time around. Can Cork get three goals again? Yes, but they may need four.

Cork will post a big score but their chief concern is at the other end of the field. After shipping 3-26 against Limerick in May, which was also the total they coughed up against Clare, can Cork restrict Limerick to 2-25? They’ll need to before they can even think about posting a score to exceed that total.

Limerick know how treacherous this game is, but they’ll still feel that they can cross this bridge and move one step closer to five-in-a-row immortality. Can Cork blow that bridge asunder now? Possibly. But unlikely.