IN the first 47 seconds of the opening period of extra-time in the Cork-Limerick Munster U20 semi-final, 10 different players had possession at some stage or another in a blitzkrieg of rucks, tackles and turnovers.
The sequence of play was a near total blur of chaos until it finally ground to a halt; Mark Quinlan had the ball in his hand in the middle of the field before being ensnared in a trap set by four Cork players, hunting the ball from all sides. Quinlan was eventually blown for over-carrying and Daire Connery pointed the free.
When Limerick levelled immediately from another free, the match looked set to continue as how it had finished in normal time. But then Cork took over. They won the next two puckouts which ended with Cork side-line cuts, which Colin O’Brien pointed. O’Brien was then fouled for a converted free before he nailed another sideline cut.
Two excellent Brian Hayes points, followed by another Connery free, pushed the lead out to six points by half-time in extra-time.
After registering the last four scores in normal time to level the match, Limerick looked to have all the momentum heading into extra-time. But Cork emphatically extinguished that hope by grabbing the game by the throat.
After scoring 1-14 in 60 plus minutes of normal time, Cork exceeded that total with 1-15 in 20 minutes of extra-time. The contribution from the Cork substitutes was the most impressive from any bench in recent memory, with a colossal haul of 1-12 from four players.
In so many ways, it was the ideal way for Cork to go into tomorrow evening’s Munster final. They should have won the match in normal time but how much more did they learn about themselves, and their team in extra-time?
If Cork had won in normal time, O’Brien wouldn’t have been a factor in the outcome because he was only introduced in the 60th minute. How much confidence will he bring into the final now after scoring 0-5? It’s a similar story with Brian Hayes who caused rack in extra-time, ending with 1-4 after being introduced midway through the second half. Cork brought 24 players to the Gaelic Grounds and ended up using 23 of them.
How Cork ran the bench was a triumph of smart management and good coaching. The experienced players stood up and led the charge but the most impressive aspect of the win was how it was also achieved with the future in mind.
A core of this Cork team have huge experience, having played in the 2017 All-Ireland minor final, and last year’s All-Ireland U20 final. Yet three of the team which started against Limerick are U18, with three more still U19.
Eleven of the 23 players played some part in the 2017 All-Ireland U17 final win against Dublin, with eight of those players starting against Limerick. That’s a solid base of experience, especially when five of those players started the 2017 All-Ireland minor final. But the high volume of young players coming after that group underlines the quality Cork have been producing behind them.
Cork may not have reached Munster minor finals (U17) in 2018 and 2019, but they still had some excellent players who are getting the opportunity now to showcase that talent. Five U18s featuring against Limerick also provides further proof how Cork were the unluckiest team in last year’s minor championship.
The semi-final was a huge win, especially with it coming just hours after Cork were beaten by 12 points in the Munster minor semi-final by Limerick. The U20 players would have insulated themselves from any real knowledge or detail of that result but it still increased the pressure on Cork to get a win, especially when there was so much expectancy around the minors.
Cork looked like a team carrying strains of that pressure in normal time but the performance in extra-time will have been a liberation of sorts in preparing for the final. Moreover, Cork won’t carry the same baggage that some players may have hauled into last year’s U20 Munster and All-Ireland finals.
Prior to those games, those two U20 groups in 2019 had consistently clashed throughout the different inter-county age grades, which set the tone of engagement for their two U20 meetings last year.
Nine of the current Cork squad, and six of the Tipp team, played in last year’s All-Ireland U20 final. But the core groups from these 2020 teams haven’t the same shared history.
When the sides met in the opening round of the All-Ireland U16 competition in 2016, Tipp won but Cork qualified from the group as the best runners-up and went on to win the competition.
When they clashed in the Munster U17 semi-final in 2017, Cork won in Páirc Uí Rinn by 13 points, but it took an unanswered 1-7 in the final 10 minutes to secure victory.
Yet those games have little or no relevance now, particularly when so few of the current Tipp U20s were involved in those matches; only five of the 23 Tipp players which featured against Waterford played in that U17 match in 2017. And that number didn’t include their two main men up front now, Conor Bowe and Andrew Ormond.
Tipp have serious firepower. They have winning experience too because 13 of their squad were involved in last year’s set-up. There is more pressure on Cork to deliver, especially having lost the last three big underage finals to Tipp – All-Ireland U21 final in 2018, and last year’s two U20 finals.
But the extra-time performance against Limerick showed that this team can deliver under pressure.