WITH the very last attack of Wednesday evening’s Munster U21 final, Conor Cahalane won possession and handpassed the ball back to Sean O’Donoghue.
John Meyler, who was standing only yards away from O'Donoghue on the sideline, immediately pointed to the square.
O’Donoghue didn’t need to be told what to do but Meyler was just acting on instinct; Cork were trailing by two points and Declan Dalton, Cork’s match-winner against Waterford, was hanging around the square.
As soon as the ball dropped though Limerick got bodies around the break and Kyle Hayes scooped it up and took off on a solo-run. Hayes had only got a few metres when the referee blew the final whistle.
Meyler, Sean Barry and Kieran ‘Fraggy’ Murphy had clearly been animated throughout the last quarter but their bubbling frustration with the referee Rory McGann had already boiled over a couple of minutes earlier when Limerick were awarded a free out which the Cork management felt was a free-in.
It was easy to understand their frustration. The final free count was 16-8 in Limerick’s favour but while Limerick got eight points from those frees, Cork didn’t get their first free in a scoreable position until the 46th minute.
That came after Dalton was pulled down. By that stage, Cork had stacked most of their chips around Dalton, who they moved in to the edge of the square in the 42nd minute. Yet Cork only managed to launch three long balls into Dalton during the last 20 minutes, only one of which he won. Dalton did win a second but he spilled it and the ball was cleared, which was inevitable with Hayes playing so deep as a sweeper in front of Dalton.
Dalton was struggling while Shane Kingston was also well held by Sean Finn, who switched onto Kingston after half-time. Kingston made five second half plays but he only had possession three times and got off two shots, one of which he scored.
It was testament to Cork to still be within two points of Limerick at the end because Limerick looked in a different league in the first quarter when leading by 0-7 to 0-0. The breeze was a factor but Cork couldn’t get the ball past the Limerick half-back line.
In that opening quarter, Cork had just three attacks and no shot on goal from play. Their two wides were stray passes while their only shot at the target was a Dalton sideline which dropped short and which resulted in a free-out to Limerick.
Then Kingston rifled two points from his first two possessions in between a Tim O’Mahony point and the deficit was suddenly down to four by the 20th minute. It looked a whole lot better for Cork by half-time when an O’Mahony goal still left just four between the sides.
However, 11 scores to five told a truer story of the match and that trend largely held throughout the second half. Limerick generated more attacks (14-13). They had more possession but they couldn’t put the game away, failing to score during an 18-minute period in the half, and ending the match with 12 wides.
That left the door open for Cork and while four unanswered points put them right back in the hunt, only one of those scores came from play, which highlighted Cork’s struggles up front.
Cork will argue that their system of playing just one player up top as the spearhead was working, especially when they were still within touching distance. Yet Limerick still had a grip on possession and Cork could have pushed more bodies forward with the breeze to really go for it.
It was still a tribute to Cork to get so close without Darragh Fitzgibbon and Luke Meade but they needed those players to bridge what was a gulf between the sides. That’s no slight on Cork because the experience in this Limerick team was underlined with five of their six forwards playing senior championship this year. Hayes and Finn also played championship while Ronan Lynch and Colin Ryan (the best player on the field) are also on the senior squad.
Limerick were the better team but getting so close without Fitzgibbon and Meade underlined how much Cork’s electric hurling summer has regenerated confidence to all Cork hurlers and teams.