Cork 3-22 Westmeath 0-25
CORK relegated Westmeath after an exhilarating relegation play-off at sun-scorched Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
A two-goal salvo from sub Mark Collins and Luke Connolly in the third quarter was decisive for Ronan McCarthy's side while Brian Hurley stitched the third goal to make it 3-18 to 0-22 when the visitors were still well in contention.
Hurley was terrific, assisting Collins' goal, firing 1-3 of his own, hitting the crossbar and converting a free. Ian Maguire offered his usual leadership from midfield with newcomer Dan Dineen, a promising Cork minor in 2015 who took a while to step up to this level, impressing at times with his ball-winning in attack, scoring 0-3. Kevin O'Donovan, Paul Walsh, Kevin Flahive and Collins were all composed outlets for possession in Cork's much-improved second-half offering, though the concession of 25 points overall was alarming ahead of championship.
Cork were 1/9 unbackable favourites but were rocked by Westmeath's intensity and belief in the opening exchanges. After keeping a clean sheet in all three games in Division 2 North, the green flags raised by Hurley, Collins and Connolly swung the balance of a game where the Leinster side led by two points at half-time.
By the second water break, it was 2-17 to 0-19 but Westmeath weren't going to fade out quietly, tearing into Cork to cut the margin to just two points before a vital point from sub Brian Harnett under pressure.
The introduction of Hurley was enforced by a worrying hamstring injury for Cathail O'Mahony but the experienced attacker was a menace in that third quarter, scoring 0-3 linking up with Collins brilliantly. Injuries were a theme unfortunately, John O'Rourke, Connolly and Deane all out on their feet as well.
Seán Meehan had his hands full with Westmeath talisman John Heslin, so forceful and accurate from number 14. As is often the case for defenders, once Cork tightened up in the middle third, that threat was reduced.
They trailed at half-time 0-14 to 0-12 but it could have been worse, Westmeath spurning two glorious goal chances, one rebounding from the butt of the post. By the same token, Connolly sent a goal chance of his own whizzing wide too after 32 minutes.
They were more clinical on the resumption. Connolly hit Hurley with an inch-perfect pass in the 39th minute, and he fed Castlehaven club mate Collins to net from close range: 1-14 to 0-15. It was the Rebels' first lead since the third minute.
Collins was hauled back soon when a goal chance was on but the ref opted not to use the new rules to award Cork a penalty and to make matters worse, Connolly missed the subsequence close-range free. From the kick-out, it was level, from a cracking Ger Egan point and Lorcan Egan nudged them in front.
The drama continued as Ian Maguire thundered up field from a kick-out and when it looked like he'd shoot himself, offloaded to Connolly to fist home in style, 2-14 to 0-18.
They've a bye to the Munster semi-final against Limerick or Waterford, before a likely provincial final away to Kerry.
L Connolly 1-4 (0-4 f), B Hurley 1-4 (0-1 f), M Collins 1-1, D Dineen (0-1 mark), C O’Mahony 0-3 each, P Walsh 0-2, J O’Rourke, R Deane, S White, B Harnett, C O’Callaghan 0-1 each.
J Heslin 0-12 (0-8 f, 0-1 mark), R O’Toole, R Connellan, G Egan, L Dolan 0-3 each, S McCartan 0-1 each.
M Martin; K Flahive, S Meehan, S White; K O’Donovan, M Taylor, C Kiely; I Maguire, P Walsh; J O’Rourke, R Deane, K O’Driscoll; D Dineen, L Connolly, C O’Mahony.
M Collins for J O’Rourke (31 mins, inj); B Hurley for O’Mahony (36 inj); B Hartnett for Deane (inj), T Corkery for Kiely (both 53); D Gore for Connolly (inj), E McSweeney for White (both 61).
J Daly; J Smith, K Maguire, B Sayeh; J Dolan, R Wallace, J Gonoud; D Corroon, S Duncan; D Lynch, R O’Toole, G Egan; R Connellan, J Heslin, L Dolan.
S McCartan for Smith (25); D Giles for Connellon (41, inj); R Ayorinde for Duncan, N Mulligan for Gonoud (both 51); N Harte for Lynch (62); S Maxwell for Dolan (67); C O’Callaghan for O’Donovan (70).
C Reilly (Meath).