THE last play of the game on Saturday evening perfectly encapsulated the match, how committed the teams were, and how fine the margins were.
Seamus Harnedy had a chance to win the game but Seán Finn blocked his shot with the top of the bas of his hurley. Inches. Millimetres even.
In an epic battle, there were 80 scoring chances created, split evenly (40-40).
Limerick did work harder. They made 19 more hooks-blocks-tackles. They forced eight more turnovers-in-possession, which was even more impressive considering they were a man down for over 45 minutes.
They played with more energy and desire but that was understandable too considering Cork were playing their third hard game within 13 days.
Similar to last week, it could be easy to be somewhat critical of Cork. Even with an extra man, they faded out of the game for long periods in the second half.
They actually had more overall possession (57%) but they were still submerged beneath Limerick’s scoring tides during those hiatuses; at one stage, Limerick scored seven of eight points.
When they trailed Limerick by three points late on, Cork looked out of ideas. They appeared to be mentally and physically jaded but Cork admirably summoned the resolve to hit four successive points.
Cork’s statistics were way down on the first half. After making 41 plays in the opening half, their front six made just 24 after the break.
But they came up with big plays when they really needed them late on, especially Patrick Horgan. From six second-half plays, Horgan either scored or was fouled for 1-3.
Darragh Fitzgibbon also came up with the goods down the home straight.
After a brilliant opening half when making 11 plays, winning four puck-outs and scoring two points from play, Fitzgibbon’s numbers plummeted in the second half. But he hit two brilliant late points.
Limerick were excellent. They have long carried the status of a coming team but they have arrived this summer, and are now a really genuine force, and threat in this championship.
They played some brilliant stuff. They threw the ball around intelligently and engineered some excellent scores but this performance was defined by massive work-rate, heart and immense character. They were led by Cian Lynch, Diarmuid Byrnes and Tom Morrissey.
Those three only had a combined 35 possessions (Mark Coleman and Daniel Kearney had a combined 40 possessions) but Lynch, Byrnes and Morrissey used that possession superbly.
Seamus Flanagan also announced himself as a player of massive potential. From 13 plays, Flanagan scored five points from play and engineered three more.
A brilliant minor, Flanagan’s development seemed to have stalled afterwards. He was only number 24 on last year’s U21 panel for the All-Ireland final against Kilkenny but his progress this year is a testament to how far he, and this team, have travelled.
The upsurge in Graeme Mulcahy’s form is another indicator of Limerick’s development. After scoring four points from play against Tipperary, Mulcahy scored two points on Saturday evening and had a hand in two more.
Yet his huge work-rate from 10 plays was a metaphor for how much this group are willing to roll up their sleeves and dive into the trenches.
His face-off with Coleman in the second half, after first blocking him, and then flicking the ball off Coleman’s hurley, also seemed to ignite the players and their supporters.
Limerick’s work-rate was off the charts in the second half, particularly in the third quarter. So was their accuracy in that period, especially between the 40th and 50th minutes, when Limerick scored six points from seven shots.
In the same 10-minute period, Cork converted just two of seven scoring chances but one of those was Horgan’s goal, which gave Cork a foothold that they were craving in the face of Limerick’s physical onslaught.
The goal looked set to give Cork the impetus to drive on but they couldn’t build on that platform and Limerick soon tore it down. That defiance was evident from just after Aaron Gillan’s sending off when Limerick created six scoring chances to Cork’s four before the half time whistle.
All evening, Limerick’s tackling and ability to close down the space, and the man, put Cork in huge bother, especially in the second half.
Cork won 12 more puck-outs over the 70 minutes but Limerick were happy to give Cork the short puck-out and then shut them down once the second pass had been made. Anthony Nash took 12 short puck-outs in the second half but, similar to last week, mistakes crept into their play when the heat and the press came on, and Limerick engineered scores, and scoring chances from those turnovers.
Damien Cahalane struggled on Flanagan but when Cork eventually made that switch with Colm Spillane, Flanagan was limited to just two plays, one of which was an assist. Limerick would have won the match if Pat Ryan had taken his goal chance in the 67th minute but Cork came down the pitch and Horgan landed a brilliant point.
It was superb improvisation from Horgan in the way he knocked the ball down one-handed in traffic to create the chance but the play further underlined how well Cork kept their heads late on. There were times when Cork’s distribution was messy and poor but they still won 10 of the 17 balls played into their attack in the second half.
And four of those 10 were the last four deliveries, and at a stage when the game was boiling with pressure and intensity.
Cork still know they have work to do. Energy levels have to be taken into consideration but not tracking the Limerick runners late on was costly. Mark Coleman is an excellent player but his inexperience did show at times in the sweeper role.
And Cork also need to close down more space in the centre of their defence. Despite all those issues, Cork will still be happy with another draw after another hard match. They are also just one of three unbeaten teams from the 10 in this championship.
And with a two-week break ahead of their next game, Cork should be in better shape to make that final push for the line.