IN the 62nd minute of Saturday’s relegation semi-final, Westmeath’s Sam McCartan had a glorious goal-chance to level the match, but he blazed his shot over the cross-bar.
Ian Maguire won the subsequent Cork kickout and Kevin O’Donovan played a delicate pass into Brian Hurley, who drove the ball to the net.
From being in a potentially perilous position down the home-straight, Cork had finally put a dangerous game to bed.
Cork’s response was impressive but there was also a trend to it.
After Westmeath had kicked three successive points to go ahead by one in the 44th minute, Paul Walsh won the Cork kickout, passed to Maguire, who rampaged through the heart of the Westmeath defence to set up Luke Connolly for a goal.
Westmeath threw everything at Cork. As well as scoring 0-25, Westmeath also created six clear-cut goalscoring chances.
There were stages in the first half when Westmeath tore Cork apart with their running game.
Some of that stuff is a huge concern ahead of the championship, but Cork will still be happy with how they found a way to win a game they could not afford to lose.
It was an excellent match, a total shootout, really open, but one of those matches when nothing really went to script.
Westmeath hadn’t conceded a goal in their three previous games, but Cork scored three and could have raised seven green flags.
The final scoreline resembled a hurling match.
After only scoring 0-3 in the first half of their previous game against Down, Westmeath had 0-10 on the board by the first quarter.
They had 13 shots from 15 attacks in that period.
Westmeath were doing huge damage on kickouts in that opening period, sourcing seven points off restarts.
Two of those scores came off Micheál Martin’s kickouts but Westmeath scored four points off short kickouts and worked the ball the length of the field far too easily.
After conceding so many scores from placed balls against Clare, and with Cork surely aware of John Heslin’s accuracy from frees, Cork looked reticent in the tackle, and too stand-offish in contact in the first half.
On a couple of occasions, Westmeath players walked through without a finger laid on them. Cork were better and more efficient in the tackle in the second half.
They increased their intensity, but they also had a better defensive structure, even if they still coughed up 11 scores and a handful of goal chances.
More importantly though, they showed much more intent when in possession, especially in the speed of their thought process. After turning the ball over 11 times in the first half, Cork turned over possession just four times after the break.
Westmeath had 100% accuracy from placed balls but the pace they played with in the first half was also going to be difficult to sustain, especially when compared to the superior strength Cork had on their bench.
Losing Kieran Martin, one of Westmeath’s most experienced players, beforehand was a huge blow, as was the loss of Ray Connellan to injury just after half-time.
Connellan was brilliant in the first half, scoring three points from play and causing mayhem anytime he ran at the Cork defence.
Westmeath hadn’t any game-changers to bring in, but Cork did; from just six possessions, Brian Hurley scored 1-3 from play, had an assist and almost had another goal with an audacious shot which hit the crossbar.
From 11 possessions, Mark Collins scored a goal, claimed a mark, won a kickout, had an assist and was fouled for a free. The Cork bench contributed 2-8.
Cork got a profitable scoring return from intelligent kicked deliveries from deep.
Overall, Cork had a conversion rate of 76%, which was even more impressive considering 3-17 of their total came from play.
Cork scored 0-7 off their own kickout, and two points off the Westmeath kickout, but, similar to the Clare game, they coughed up too many scores off the opposition kickout – Westmeath bagged 0-12 off their own kickout.
Cork won 12 of their 16 kickouts in the first half but they were still mostly on the back foot through Westmeath’s kickouts and the power and pace of their running game on a lighting fast surface.
Cork’s most experienced players around the middle – Ian Maguire, Ruari Deane and John O’Rourke – were limited to just 23 possessions in that first half, and Cork only began to establish any real rhythm in their play towards the end of the half.
It looked like Cathail O’Mahoney was going to own the game inside the opening five minutes with three points from his first three possessions. O’Mahoney though, had only one more shot at the target, which was blocked down, before going off with a hamstring injury before half-time.
Westmeath got to grips with O’Mahoney, but they had to. He was limited to just four more possessions after his first four possessions resulted in shots, while Westmeath also sourced two turnovers off long balls kicked into O’Mahoney.
The biggest plus for Cork in the first half though, was the brilliant form of Dan Dineen, who had three scoring assists, was fouled for a free, had a hand in another point, as well as kicking a score off a well-earned mark. Dineen maintained that form after the break with two more points as well as being fouled for a free.
Cork knew they had to lay down a marker early in the second half and the tone was set by their big players, especially Maguire, Hurley, Luke Connolly and Collins, all of whom were centrally involved in Cork’s goals.
And Cork’s third goal from Hurley finally sealed the deal on a game Cork just had to win.