A late statement performance from Cork, but can they back it up in the Championship?

In our Irish Examiner podcast every Monday, one of our most striking lines from the intro montage is from that famous or infamous Aherlow-Nenagh Tipperary County football final in the early 1990s, which was immortalized by the buzzing commentary of Eddie Moroney, who was later christened ‘Effin Eddie’.

“There’s a little needle point there,” Eddie says in the intro. Shortly after yesterday’s game at the Gaelic Grounds, this line came to mind because the air was filled with the smell of bad blood.

It reminded me a lot of how it was between us and Tipperary in the late 1990s, when the relationship was fueled by enmity and bitterness. It’s only natural that Cork doesn’t like Limerick after the heartbreak they’ve endured at their hands for the past few years. Last year’s All-Ireland final hammering was almost the final straw, but there also comes a time when a team has to say more or less loudly that enough is enough.

The half-time whistle was almost necessary as things got slightly out of control. It wasn’t quite war, but it had the potential to get really nasty had those two red cards arrived earlier in the half.

And yet, a few more players could have walked, and both teams could have finished with 13 men. Sean Twomey was lucky enough to escape with a yellow card for his challenge on Declan Hannon, who responded with interest, while Will O’Donoghue could also have stepped on a second yellow for a cut on Sean O’Donoghue.

You should be impressed with Cork. There was nothing to learn from coming here half-baked. If they hadn’t brought the war after last year’s finale, you would have asked them some serious questions. But they played like a team that still carries that injury, a team eager to exorcise some of the demons of last August.

Cork will have been delighted to return home on the bus. I’m sure somewhere in their subconscious the players and management will have thought, “Damn, we’ve pushed the bear now, what will they be like in seven weeks?” Limerick will be wild, but at least Cork now knows that not only can they run around the bear, but they can also stand up to it.

Cork really announced their intention early in the game, especially towards the middle of the first half. Over an extended period of play there was a continuous series of rucks that Limerick normally dominates, but the Cork lads repeatedly regained possession and charged forward in waves.

Cork did all his talking on the pitch. They held their own against Limerick, but they also stuck to their style and their game plan. Their first goal was vintage Cork – a long diagonal ball from Robbie O’Flynn past Patrick Horgan, who won it and created the opening for Shane Kingston to drive past Barry Hennessy. It’s not often Limerick is knocked down for 1-6 unanswered, but that was how hot Cork’s form was when the game had to be decided.

Even though Limerick trailed by 14 points at the break, I still thought the second half was enjoyable. Music blared from the speakers at halftime. Limerick brought the big guns out of the bench. Decibels soared among home support. Even though they had a press cut and lost a third game in a row, Limerick now have such a profile as the best team in the game that every game they play now feels like an event.

Limerick will always be disappointed with the performance, especially when they were forced to pull out so many guys that John Kiely said in his TV interview beforehand they had the utmost confidence in. In many ways, this was contradictory because the reliable fire- a brigade of reliables was summoned once the building was on fire.

Cork absolutely dominated in all key areas, but you still wonder about the mind games, particularly from Limerick. Sure, they want to keep Cork down, but how long can you keep fighting a mob before it finally rises? Can you hold the accelerator pedal down either, something Limerick has been doing since 2018? I also felt that Limerick looked leggy, which may suggest they are in the midst of intensive training.

Aaron Gillane tapping a free 20 yards in the second half when Limerick needed a spark, when a goal was required, said more than enough. If this happened in the Championship, does Gillane hit this over the bar? Absolutely not.

However, Cork was also sending his own discrete cues to remind Limerick of what he was capable of, and the power and pace he had in store. If you’re a Limerick defender on your feet after chasing those speedsters around the square for 50 minutes and then see two more sprinters, Conor Cahalane and Jack O’Connor arrive, how mind-blowing is that prospect? Conversely, if my name is Kieran Kingston, I’m like, ‘There you go now guys, catch us if you can because we can ride this fast off the bench all day.’

But that’s still just the league. We were all talking about the impressive Galway against Limerick two weeks ago and they were beaten by Wexford by six points at Salthill yesterday. It’s just the league for you. Galway burned it in the campaign last year and then exploded over the summer.

Winning the league would take some pressure off Henry Shefflin, but in his TV interview before Galway played Limerick, Henry was already talking about Wexford at Wexford Park on April 16 in Leinster’s first round-robin game. Cork face Limerick on the same day in Munster. For these four teams, it’s the only date that matters, regardless of what happened yesterday or what was about to happen.

Cork’s performance was always a statement. It may take them another year or two to win an All-Ireland but there is a real panel of quality emerging. Some of these young players, in particular Ciaran Joyce and Daire O’Leary, were top of mind after yesterday, but one of the main talking points over the weekend was the referees cracking down on illegal hand passes.

If we can get that enforcement of the rule that leads to more legal transmissions, so much the better. But if we go into the league with this streak of frees every game, it’s going to be tough to watch. He’s either knocked out with consistent application consistency across the league or this whole area is going to be a cloud hanging over the Championship in the two weeks before it starts.

What is certain for now is that Páirc Uí Chaoimh will vibrate with the noise and hysteria of ten Ed Sheeran concerts in seven weeks. You could even see this in the body language of the players during the handshakes after yesterday’s game. They know full well what’s happening in April and maybe a few more league meetings before the end of the season.

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