Raging red seas of Cork end Limerick’s drive for five

Limerick scored 29 times and lost. They scored 29 times in the group game in Pairc Úi Chaoimh and lost. It’s one thing to take their five-in-a-row away but another to have really earned it. Cork did that.

Cork's Alan Connolly and Limerick's Seán Finn in action during the GAA All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final between Cork and Galway on 07-07-2024 at Croke Park Dublin. Pic Philip Walsh
Cork's Alan Connolly and Limerick's Seán Finn in action during the GAA All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final between Cork and Galway on 07-07-2024 at Croke Park Dublin. Pic Philip Walsh
All-Ireland SHC semi-final
Cork 1-28 Limerick 0-29

TO the beat of Freed from Desire the Hill bounces, their mind and their senses purified by two sensational hours of sport, the long-lost sea of red is returned to an All-Ireland final.

They have another party to attend and get the better of in two weeks’ time but as they dance their way to the exits, this is a day they wish would last forever.

We all do, for this was the best of sport.

It took the best of Cork because for the last 15 minutes Limerick made sure that if history was going to run away from them, it was going to have to look them in the eye and excuse itself first.

From seven down, they took it to the wire. Robert Downey took two goes to gobble up the last desperate delivery to the Cork square but he’d been too good in the skies for the Gods to do it to him.

Cork had just brought too much to the game to go away without it.

Six years on from their last epic semi-final, the pattern was not dissimilar.

When Nickie Quaid slid at Patrick Horgan’s mishit groundstroke after the ball had come back down off the post, you wondered if it really could happen again.

Limerick had come from six down that day and even though they faced into deeper debt this time, nobody believed it was anything but still alive until it wasn’t.

The champions had stolen the deeds to the sliotar with 15 minutes to go. Cork hardly saw it again.

The defence that had looked vulnerable all afternoon beneath Cork’s orchestrated aerial attacks got up and marched Limerick back into the game.

But in the midst of the madness, there’s always space for reality. Limerick were uncharacteristically imprecise.

Adam English and Shane O’Brien had done so much to make a game of it but when their late chances came, both drew agonisingly wide of the near post on the Cusack side. So too Aidan O’Connor.

Three subs, none of them blessed with all the experience of the men whose places they took.

But without their introductions, Limerick wouldn’t have been in a place for it to have mattered.

Aaron Gillane had earlier dragged a relatively simple free wide, but it would be a denigration to judge him on it. He was their life support all throughout the second half, almost ignoring Sean O’Donoghue at times to just keep on keeping on.

There had been the first half goal chance too, but Patrick Collins put himself in front of the speeding bullet, taking it in the armpit.

The rush of adrenaline from being awarded the subsequent free out, given against Gillane for overcarrying on the rebound before Collins saved Seamus Flanagan’s second effort almost the same way, numbed the area.

Collins also denied Gearoid Hegarty with a smart stop in the second half. They were such big moments.

Cork were a raging wild red sea that Limerick had to just find ways to surf. Gillane was one way. Tom Morrissey another until Mark Coleman buckled his seatbelt and rammed into the fight after half-time.

By then, Kiely had performed surgery on his defence. Mike Casey was having awful bother with Brian Hayes. He wouldn’t be the last.

His goal came off Seamus Harnedy’s desire to just be there on top of Diarmaid Byrnes, that if he made a mistake it could be punished. It was. The ball was stripped, Shane Barrett changes feet and feeds Hayes to barrel through and bury.

Another hour of hurling would fly past but that would come to be the decisive moment. He thought he’d added a second moments later but the referee’s whistle touted on Alan Connolly’s handpass in the build-up when a thousand of those a day go unpunished.

The raging red seas were running wild but as Limerick do, they found ways to surf them.

By half-time, it felt like the storm had been weathered. They hit ten points between Hayes’ legitimate goal and half-time to lead by 0-16 to 1-11.

The change of ownership in the battle between Diarmaid Byrnes and Seamus Harnedy was symptomatic of that period. Harnedy had been brilliant until Byrnes was.

David Reidy was looking too many for Niall O’Leary, Gillane had the better of O’Donoghue, Cathal O’Neill had three from play.

But then O’Neill had a nightmare of a third quarter. Nothing would go right for him, and that kind of summed up another massive shift in the momentum of an afternoon that had 82,300 people in a state of unending high-pitched thrall.

Maybe Limerick thought to themselves that they’d seen everything Cork had to offer in the first 35 minutes. Limerick’s second quarter was a movie everyone has seen before. Just the ending had never changed before.

Different characters came to the fore than had carried their early surge. Declan Dalton, whose battle with Kyle Hayes had been peripheral, came with a huge second half. His goalkeeper started to utilise him out wide and the speed of Cork’s restarts was a sign of their unwavering belief that this game had to be attacked to be won.

The minute they’d have slowed up or taken time to settle is the minute Limerick swallow you whole.

Mark Coleman got on top of Morrissey, the two Downeys of the Glen stitched the middle up tight, Seamus Flanagan and Cathal O’Neill disappearing out of it and taken off. Shane Barrett’s involvement in the goal put the jump leads on him.

Cork had altered their midfield to send Tim O’Mahony to Cian Lynch but it was the other battle that mattered. Will O’Donoghue was taken off too, his head spinning from looking around to see where the hell Cork’s battery pack Darragh Fitzgibbon had gone now.

It felt relentless from the Rebels in that third quarter, their crowd worked into a frenzy that crossed the threshold into disbelief when they led by seven points with 18 minutes to play.

The five-in-a-row was threatening to walk out without leaving a note, but Limerick made it at least turn and think it over.

The last quarter of the game was an electric passage that any sport would do well to surpass.

Seven, six, five, four, three, two. It almost feels inevitable that they’re going to make Cork crumble now.

Shane Barrett’s effort comes down off a post and Horgan doesn’t connect, Quaid smothering the shot at source.

Aidan O’Connor misses off the next attack. Aaron Gillane backs right into Sean O’Donoghue six yards out from the next, but the Inniscarra defender holds his ground like a boulder and the ball trickles out wide off the wrestle.

Time ticks on, John Kiely points at his watch, and next thing you’re into the territory where only a goal will do.

Limerick scored 29 times and lost.

They scored 29 times in the group game in Pairc Úi Chaoimh and lost.

It’s one thing to take their five-in-a-row away but another to have really earned it.

Cork did that.

The guard changes in two weeks’ time. When they last met in the final in 2013, it was heralded as the cementing of a new world order in hurling, that the old guard were dying off.

Twelve months later, Kilkenny and Tipperary were back in the final. Cork have been back once since, Clare not at all.

Maybe nothing changes long-term but the name on the Liam MacCarthy in 2024 will not be Limerick’s.

Days like these can only be good for a sport’s health.

Limerick N Quaid; S Finn, D Morrissey, M Casey; D Byrnes, D Hannon, K Hayes; W O’Donoghue, C O’Neill; G Hegarty, C Lynch, T Morrissey; A Gillane, S Flanagan, D Reidy

Subs S O’Brien (0-2) for Flanagan (52), A English (0-2) for Reidy (53), D O’Donovan for O’Donoghue (53), A O’Connor for T Morrissey (63)

Cork P Collins; N O’Leary, E Downey, S O’Donoghue; C Joyce, R Downey (0-1), M Coleman (0-1); T O’Mahony, D Fitzgibbon (0-3); D Dalton (0-4, 0-2 frees), S Barrett (0-3, S Harnedy (0-4); P Horgan (0-5, 0-3 frees), A Connolly (0-3), B Hayes (1-4)

Subs E Twomey for O’Mahony (58), S Kingston for Dalton (61), R O’Flynn for Harnedy (66), P Power for Horgan (72)

Referee T Walsh (Waterford)

Attendance 82,300