NO one epitomised the attitude and commitment of the Cork hurlers yesterday at the Gaelic Grounds more than Aidan Walsh.
He was the only one of the starting Rebel forwards not to score. He wasn’t fouled for any of Patrick Horgan’s frees within range – Daniel Kearney leading the way there by being pulled down five times.
Walsh did have two assists and set up Seamus Harnedy’s goal chance but what was critical to Cork was the hard yards he put in. He was a puck-out option, his movement shifted the Limerick rearguard out of position and his physicality ensured every clearance was under savage pressure.
Cork played some classy hurling as they always do but their work-rate, tackling and determination was hugely improved from their drubbing at the hands of Tipp. That came from the forwards back.
“After last weekend we had to come out with something and we worked really hard,” explained Walsh afterward, in what was an understatement.
“My role is to make space for the boys. If I’m doing that I know the rest of the boys will deliver. If everyone works hard we’ll be there or thereabouts in every game.
“It was the perfect situation for us. We’d only a six-day turnaround and we’d a lot to prove. We know when we perform we’re one of the top teams in the country and it was probably tough for Limerick because we had a match played.”
A chunk of the Cork hurlers were being written off after the no-show in the Páirc and they responded by combining their trademark pace with cuteness on the ball and incredible ferocity without it.
Talk of an unsettled dressing room was quelled by such a unified display where Limerick were second best for long spells. Walsh felt they wanted to win for John Meyler and his backroom as much as each other and the fans.
“John Meyler, Fraggie, Donal O’Mahony and the backroom team are great. I was delighted when I got the call from John earlier in the year to join the panel.
“He’s a pure hurling man and a passionate man and you’d go through the wall for him. He loves hurling.”
Walsh was part of a reshaped line-up where Darragh Fitzgibbon held the midfield more than he usually does and Kearney and Luke Meade hunted green jerseys alongside Bill Cooper. That freed up space inside for Alan Cadogan, an early replacement for the injured Conor Lehane, Horgan and Harnedy: they combined for 1-10 from play.
Mark Ellis provided essential stability to the half-back unit, with Kyle Hayes neutered, and rookie Robert Downey was an iron man in the air. He wasn’t pulling down clean puck-outs but he spoiled Gearóid Hegarty and Tom Morrissey.
That was the platform for Cork to outscore Limerick from play, 1-20 to 1-7. Most of the frees that Cork gave up were worthwhile, particularly late on when the home side were chasing goals.
After being caught for a first-half Graeme Mulcahy goal, Stephen McDonnell was brought on at the break for Seán O’Donoghue. It was a ruthless call but it worked.
Eoin Cadogan was a beast at full-back, eventually seeing off Aaron Gillane, with Niall O’Leary excellent again in the corner and blotting out Peter Casey. Mark Coleman’s defensive work was much-improved while Fitzgibbon tracked Cian Lynch and made a brilliant hook in the closing stages when a goal seemed inevitable to bring Limerick back to within three points.
Fitzgibbon has had far flashier games for Cork but this was a mature 70-plus minutes, and he nabbed a point and was fouled for three frees despite being given a less attack-minded deployment. A defensive approach still reaped a reward.
“Based on the attack Limerick had we had to shut them down,” said Cadogan after being greeted warmly by his father Jim on the pitch. “We owed that to our forwards after the last game.
“Last week’s performance wasn’t good enough. Everyone highlighted that and we highlighted it ourselves. We still need to reset now because this was only one game.
“The Munster championship is a minefield. Anyone can beat any other team and we brought work-rate and hunger to match Limerick and came out the right side.”
Serious questions were asked of Cork in the build-up and they answered them.
“Absolutely it was a test of character. What we conceded last weekend wasn’t good enough. The criticism didn’t sting because they’re facts, can’t argue with 2-24 from play.
“The team performed for each other and the people who travelled today. We worked harder, defended better and when you bring that type of intensity and work-rate you get your rewards.”
For keeper Anthony Nash, it’s vital the Rebels stay grounded.
“It’s the full right of the public to think high or low depending on the result but we can’t afford that,” said Nash. "The lads fronted up here and we showed honesty all over the field.
"I got a text from America during the week quoting Bill Belichick and it said ‘on to Limerick’. It’s on to Waterford now. They will be coming down with their lives on the line."