Cork's time is coming, but this is still Limerick's
All-Ireland SHC final: Cork v Limerick (tomorrow, 3.30pm, Croke Park, live on RTÉ 2 and Sky Sports Mix)
AT some point in the very near future, Cork are going to burst the dam and become the GAA’s next great superpower.
Particularly in hurling terms, all they’ve needed was to get their house in order. Interest, tradition, population, they all existed through the 16 years that have passed since the county’s last All-Ireland hurling title.
They’ve been the same in both codes – enough natural ability to contend, but never enough cohesion to take over the way they had the potential to.
Just look at the last few years though.
Back-to-back All-Ireland U20 hurling champions, having lost the previous two finals. Into the weekend’s minor decider against Galway.
Their minor footballers will take part in today’s All-Ireland semi-final against Tyrone, and they won this year’s Munster U20 title, coming after a 2019 All-Ireland.
Is tomorrow too soon for the ultimate step?
Cork were All-Ireland champions the same year that Pat Culhane was hired as Limerick city’s first dedicated Hurling Development Officer.
He toured the city in a Renault Megane packed with hurls, sliotars and footballs, trying to drum up an interest in the game in inner-city areas.
Within six years, 57 per cent of primary school children in the city were playing GAA, as opposed to just eight per cent when Culhane was appointed.
A piece on GAA.ie at the beginning of this year told a tale that encapsulated the transformation.
Castletroy College had been Munster School Senior Cup rugby champions in 2008. Yet within a few years, students like Gearoid Hegarty, Dan and Tom Morrissey, and Barry Nash were passing out through the school as wing-forwards rather than wingers.
The religion of hurling had been spread into areas of atheism.
Limerick’s net result has been astounding. Were it not for that aberration in the 2019 semi-final against Kilkenny, when they were simply outfought, then they’d be going for four-in-a-row tomorrow.
Diarmuid O’Sullivan mischievously smiled that Limerick’s name was “already etched on the cup” after Cork had seen off the Cats to reach the decider, but it’s some ask for Cork to turn the engraver’s hand.
Winning an All-Ireland in 2018 was a remarkable feat by Limerick given their age profile at that time.
By the end of this year, Gearoid Hegarty will be 27. Tom Morrisey, Aaron Gillane, Sean Finn and Cian Lynch will be 25. Seamus Flanagan will turn 24 and Kyle Hayes will be 23.
They’re still a bit off their prime yet, and yet they could all be collecting their third Celtic Cross tomorrow afternoon.
Cork had them gone that first year though. They conspired to lose that sensational semi-final which hinged on the big bás of Nickie Quaid’s hurl slapping the sliotar’s cheek as Seamus Harnedy’s inevitable winner turned to a fresh-air shot.
What this season’s Munster championship meeting lacked was the evidence provided by their recent meetings that Cork are a team that can unduly trouble the champions.
The Rebels should have won that 2018 semi-final. The sides had drawn in Munster earlier that summer and Cork did win their provincial group stage meeting the following year.
Limerick won by two in the league in 2020, and even though they were relegated in 2019, Cork’s sole win of their Division 1A campaign came in the Gaelic Grounds.
Those are not insignificant but nor is the fact that John Kiely’s men have won both of this season’s meetings by eight points.
Kieran Kingston’s side have done well to recover from the disappointment of their championship opener. Not so much the defeat itself, but that for 34 minutes they did a whole lot right only to be undone by two goals in a minute.
That Limerick went from level to going in leading by six allowed them to dictate the second half’s terms, and they would point to their uncharacteristic tally of 20 wides over the 70 minutes as mitigation against the idea that Cork troubled them.
The beaten side would argue that Patrick Horgan will have few days where his finishing is as awry. Five pointed frees is a return they can expect a significant improvement on from a man who deserves an All-Ireland more than most.
Richie English has since lost his place to Dan Morrissey, who is likely to take Horgan tomorrow. There’s also been a change at full-back at the other end, with Damien Cahalane out and Robert Downey in.
Much else about their Munster meeting is transferable.
Sean O’Donoghue’s performance against Aaron Gillan was such that the Limerick sharp-shooter was dropped for the Munster final.
S Finn D Morrissey B Nash
J O’Connor P Horgan S Kingston
D Byrnes D Hannon K Hayes
C Cahalane S Harnedy R O’Flynn
W O’Donoghue D O’Donovan
D Fitzgibbon L Meade
G Hegarty C Lynch T Morrissey
T O’Mahony M Coleman E Cadogan
A Gillane S Flanagan P Casey
S O’Donoghue R Downey N O’Leary
The game was literally 28 minutes old before Cian Lynch, the front-runner once more of Hurler of the Year, had the ball in his hands against Mark Coleman. But when he started to hoover up possession, the Treaty attack bobbed more rhythmically.
Whether it was white-line fever, inexperience or whatever, Cork’s allowing Kilkenny back into the semi-final has placed a question mark against their credentials.
But then the only way to know how to win is to win, and Cork haven’t done that in big games for a decade-and-a-half. Limerick’s own collapse in the second half of the 2018 final was no different.
This will be a better game for Cork’s troubles. They’ve banked the experience of having to win a game twice, and they did it off the bench.
Shane Kingston will have to start the game tomorrow. You can’t hit 1-7 from play off the bench and not start. That display made a difficult decision much easier on his father.
Cork’s rising tide will crash down hard on the GAA some day soon, and they’ll be off winning All-Irelands at every turnabout.
There are definitely chinks of light that tomorrow might even be the day it all begins. They have the pace inside to feed off Croke Park’s spaces. They have a settled look with strengths to counter Limerick’s.
No team has troubled Limerick as consistently in the last four seasons as Cork have.
Troubling is one thing. Winning is another.
Back-to-back All-Irelands, three from four, would feel like a proper representation of the grip Limerick have on hurling.
Cork’s time is coming, but this is still Limerick’s.