THE sprinkle of rain which had dampened the grass after half-time had just lifted when the wafting red smoke from the Cork flares beneath the scoreboard firmly heralded the grip Cork now had on Sunday’s match.
Patrick Horgan’s goal didn’t exactly put Cork in the clear with 17 minutes of normal time still to play but the genius of the finish was almost a salute to Cork’s brilliance, class and defiance all afternoon.
After the anaemic display against Tipperary last weekend, Cork played like a team fighting for their lives and hell-bent on redemption to reclaim the good name they surrendered seven days earlier.
Cork created 11 more scoring chances (43-32).
They hit the same total they managed against Limerick in normal time of last year’s All-Ireland semi-final but Cork didn’t let up this time when they had their foot pressed hard on Limerick’s throat.
The Limerick subs were the difference between the sides late on last July but the Limerick bench was non-existent when John Kiely was forced to empty it in the last quarter on Sunday.
The Cork defence which was subjected to such criticism seven days earlier looked a completely different unit, but their life was made a whole lot easier by the ferocious Cork work-rate all over the field.
Mark Coleman and Eoin Cadogan were outstanding, but nobody underlined Cork’s relentless attitude more than Daniel Kearney.
His numbers were way down last weekend but Kearney’s play count was through the roof with 25.
As well as scoring four points, Kearney was fouled for three frees, while he won four puck-outs and had one assist.
Limerick struggled to contain Kearney last year too but his body broke down from injury late on in that match, while the injury which had curtailed Seamus Harnedy throughout that All-Ireland semi-final was also critical to the outcome.
Harnedy led by example again on Sunday. From 16 plays, the captain scored four points and had three assists.
He stood up but so did Cork men everywhere.
After converting 14 points from 14 attempts against Tipperary, Horgan’s radar was uncharacteristically off on Sunday when missing four frees and having two wides from play but Horgan still ended with 1-3 from play and one assist.
Cork were struggling to make the ball stick inside early on.
Alan Cadogan has been blighted by injury over the last 12 months and, while that lack of sharpness was obvious in his touch early in the match, he was still always a threat and a menace.
From his five first-half plays, Cadogan scored one point, was fouled for a free, had an assist and a hand in another point.
After the break, Cadogan added two points and another assist. Aidan Walsh also showed his worth as a ball-winner and a legitimate option for an out-ball with two assists in the second half.
Cork were better everywhere from last weekend. Bill Cooper showed how much he was missed against Tipperary.
Darragh Fitzgibbon was rejuvenated. Luke Meade had his best game in over a year.
Cork’s puck-out was much sharper and incisive, with Limerick winning just seven Cork restarts.
Yet the biggest change from last weekend was Cork’s defensive stability.
They consistently got numbers behind the ball but Eoin Cadogan’s performance at full-back neatly encompassed the physical edge and aggression Cork needed to bring to this game, and which they consistently did.
Aaron Gillane had been the best player in the country during the league, but Cadogan was the perfect foil for him, outmuscling Gillane and denying him the clean possession and volume of opportunities which he torpedoed teams with during the spring.
Gillane was restricted to eight plays and while he did score one point, was fouled for two frees and had an assist, the sight of him being hauled off late on summed up Limerick’s frustrations.
Gillane’s confidence was so rattled by then that he was often looking to spoon the ball off in possession, as opposed to shooting on sight like he had being doing all season with Limerick and Mary I.
Graeme Mulcahy was Limerick’s best player, scoring 1-4 from 12 plays, but Mulcahy was also one of the four Limerick forwards hauled off.
Although Cork trailed by two points at the break, 1-11 to 0-12, the writing was on the wall for Limerick.
Their greater efficiency, along with Mulcahy’s 26th-minute goal, was the difference because Cork had dominated the possession stakes and had generated more shots in that half (19-17).
Limerick did huge damage on their own puck-out in the opening stages of the match, scoring four points off Nickie Quaid’s restarts, but Cork eventually got to grips with Limerick’s space creation.
They didn’t always win Quaid’s long puck-outs but at least they limited the damage Limerick were doing off that possession to just three more points for the remainder of the match.
Cork continued to create more chances in the third quarter but they blew the game apart in the 53rd minute when Cooper played a long crossfield ball before Horgan touched it to ground, picked it before rifling it past Quaid.
The score put Cork four points ahead, but the manner of Horgan’s strike made it feel like there was already no way back for Limerick.
There wasn’t, as Cork kept rifling points, each one laced with the kind of defiance, hurt and naked ambition which underlined how Cork are still very much alive, and highly dangerous in this championship.