MAKE no mistake, the U20s pulled off an absolutely critical win for Cork hurling on Saturday evening at floodlit Gaelic Grounds.
It was badly, badly needed, even if they'll have to improve to beat Tipp or Waterford in the final on Tuesday week. The most important thing is what's clearly a talented group, having won the U17 All-Ireland three years ago, have a provincial decider to prepare for.
After a disappointingly flat showing from the minors in their Munster semi-final, and an underwhelming senior campaign, Rebel county needed a lift. They certainly got it in extra time, where Cork were unstoppable.
In the end, it was 2-29 to 0-21, with sub Colin O'Brien making a dazzling contribution, nailing three sidelines and two points from play, as well as earning a converted free.
Brian Hayes emerged from the bench to the tune of 1-4, including a sensational point off the hurley that echoed Peter Duggan's effort for Clare against Galway in 2018. He looked very sharp, scoring 1-2, as a sub in the Munster quarter-final in Kerry, the Barrs youngster offering a combo of size and finishing.
Daire Connery was a real leader throughout, collecting a pile of dirty ball across the half-back line and landing some monstrous scores, with Ciarán Joyce, Eon Roche, Daire O'Leary and Conor O'Callaghan very prominent in defence.
At the other end, Shane Barrett and Alan Connolly lived up to their billing as the marquee forwards.
TG4 selected Barrett as the Man of the Match, but it could easily have gone to Connery. The Na Piarsaigh star stood up at crucial stages, which was brilliant to see after a few injury issues in recent seasons.
Shane O'Regan looked a young man on a mission on his introduction, Pádraig Power showed well too even if he didn't score while another replacement Brian O'Sullivan also made a telling contribution. A return of 1-12 from the subs was ultimately the difference.
Collectively, Cork were hugely impressive in extra time, ticking every box in terms of ball-winning, intensity and finishing. By the same token, there was a few mistakes, as you'd expect given the stakes, and they tried to be too clever in their distribution at times.
At this time of year, and with the forwards Cork have, a blend of pop passes and direct deliveries inside is essential.
Those are the areas where improvement will be needed in the Munster final on December 23 against the winners of Tipperary and Waterford. If it's the Premier, Cork will host the game at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, otherwise it'll be in Walsh Park.
Pat Ryan's side had to dig deep overall, away to a Limerick side that was physical, determined and thundered into the second half. They got a few marginal calls from the ref but you could only respect their refusal to yield after half-time.
Cork looked likely winners after the first 30-plus minutes, thanks to a sizzling Barrett goal, and again in the closing stages when subs O'Regan and Power lifted the Cork and Barrett and Connolly landed some brilliant points.
However, the hosts forced the frees that tied up a gripping, hard-hitting contest before Brian Roche was hooked at the death when it seemed he'd pinch the winner. That could have deflated another team, but instead Cork upped the gears to devastating effect in the additional 20 minutes.
Brian O'Sullivan, Shane O'Regan and Colin O'Brien started away to Kerry and given their efforts on Saturday, could be recalled to the starting 15. Brian Hayes has nailed 2-6 in his cameos.
Across the two games, Cork have utilised a variety of midfield combos so they'll need to settle on a pairing there. Tommy O'Connell was one of the standouts at U20 when Cork reached last year's All-Ireland and you feel there's more to come from the Midleton tyro.
The key is that Cork are still going. It would have been a travesty if this group didn't make the Munster final on Wednesday week.
B Hayes 1-4, S Barrett 1-3, A Connolly 0-6 (0-4 f), C O’Brien 0-5 (0-3 sl), D Connery 0-4 f, B Roche, T O’Connell (0-1 f), S O’Regan 0-2 each, B O’Sullivan 0-1 f.
A O’Connor 0-8 (0-7 f), C O’Neill 0-5, C Ryan 0-3 f, D O’Shea 0-2 (0-1 f), J Considine, B Nix, M McCarthy 0-1 each.
E Davis (St Catherine’s); C O’Callaghan (Dromtarriffe), E Roche (Bride Rovers), A Walsh Barry (Carrigtwohill); D Connery (Na Piarsaigh), C Joyce (Castlemartyr), D O’Leary (Watergrasshill); S Quirke (Midleton), T O’Connell (Midleton); E Carey (Kilworth), S Twomey (Courcey Rovers), B Roche (Bride Rovers); S Barrett (Blarney), J Cahalane (St Finbarr’s), A Connolly (Blackrock).
B O’Sullivan (Kanturk) for Twomey (h-t); B Hayes (St Finbarr’s) for Carey (45); P Power (Blarney) for Cahalane (47); D Flynn (Ballygiblin) for O’Connell (48); S O’Regan (Watergrasshill) for Quirke (52); C O’Brien (Liscarroll/Churchtown) for B Roche (60); C O’Brien (Newtownshandrum) for Joyce (88); F Denny (Ballincollig) for O’Callaghan (79).
J Gillane (Patrickswell); J Quilty (Blackrock), B O’Grady (Kilteely/Dromkeen), B Herlihy (Castletown/Ballyagran); M Quinlan (Garryspillane), C Ryan (Doon), C Coughlan (Ballybrown); K Bonnar (Bruff), J Considine (Patrickswell); C Downes (Kildimo Pallaskenry), D O’Shea (Garryspillane), J Ryan (Doon); A O’Connor (Ballybrown), C O’Neill (Crecora Manister), B Nix (Newcastlewest).
M Keane (Adare) for Bonnar (HT); S Long (Na Piarsaigh) for O’Shea, M McCarthy (Templeglantine) for J Ryan (both 46); D O’Leary (Bruff) for Downey (52); C Carroll (Patrickswell) for Considine (60); J Considine (Patrickswell) for Quinlan (70); B Purcell (Doon) (70); J Nicholas (Monaleen) for O’Connor (75).
R McGann (Clare).