BEFORE the football championship began in late June, the narrative during the league was largely defined by the swashbuckling and high-scoring football played out in Division 1.
The reality in Division 2 though, was completely different because the teams in that division (with the exception of Mayo) probably felt the pressure more, as much as in trying to avoid dropping to Division 3 as chasing promotion to Division 1. A Division 2 relegation semi-final was always likely to increase that sense of trepidation.
If anything, the fear of being relegated was deemed likely to reduce Cork’s approach more to pragmatism than swash-buckling, all-out-attacking football. In any case, those fears were allayed with Cork going gung-ho and scoring 3-22.
Scoring such a high total in such a high stakes game was important for Cork in the circumstances — because Cork have had a history of playing with trepidation against teams they are expected to beat.
In modern times, Cork have been more comfortable as the hunters, than the hunted.
Last year’s championship game against Kerry is a solid case in point, as was Cork’s Super 8s clash against Dublin in 2019 when Cork scored 1-17, which was the most Dublin conceded that year en route to the 5-in-a-row.
On the other hand, is that a fair assessment? Have Cork struggled against teams they are expected to beat?
Last year’s Munster final defeat to Tipperary is an obvious reference point but Cork had consistently struggled against Tipperary in recent years, in both league and championship.
When Cork last met Limerick in the championship in 2019, Limerick had just overcome Tipperary in the Munster quarter-final, and they went into their semi-final against Cork with realistic ambitions. Yet Cork smashed Limerick in that match by 21 points.
Cork will be even more on their guard now because Limerick are a completely different team since; they beat Cork in the 2020 McGrath Cup final; they secured promotion to Division 3 last year.
Limerick would have beaten Tipperary in the 2020 Munster final only for a miraculous Conor Sweeney equalising point from a sideline kick to take the game to extra-time, which Tipp won by one point; Limerick consolidated their position in Division 3 this year by reaching the semi-final, which they narrowly lost to a Derry side which basically hammered every other team they came across in the Division.
Limerick annihilated Waterford in their recent Munster quarter-final so Cork will definitely be on their guard when the sides meet in Saturday’s Munster semi-final.
Cork will be respectful of Limerick because even the great Cork football teams of the past had troubles with Limerick.
Limerick should have beaten Cork in the 2009 Munster final. When Cork won the 2010 All-Ireland, they got out of jail against Limerick in a Round 4 qualifier which went to extra-time in the Gaelic Grounds.
That was a seasoned, hardened and experienced Limerick team but even when many of those Limerick players were developing, overcoming Cork in the 2003 championship was a significant building block along their journey.
That Limerick team deserved a Munster title. Their best chance came in 2004, when Darragh O Se’s fingertips denied them a glorious victory in the drawn final.
When that team broke up and Limerick built another side at the turn of the decade, harsh refereeing decisions probably cost them the 2009 Munster final against Cork, while they could have also won the provincial crown in 2010, when losing the final to Kerry in Killarney.
At that time though, Cork and Kerry had a shared grip of the provincial title, whereas Kerry’s bid for eight-in-a-row last year was halted by Cork, who were in turn beaten by Tipp.
Tipp’s success was a huge boost and inspiration to every other side in the province but, it was also bittersweet for Limerick, particularly in the context of how close they came in the past, and especially when Limerick felt they should have been in last year’s Munster final.
That’s the kind of hurt that Limerick have been carrying since last November, and which they will bring into this semi-final now.
They will look to take Cork to the same type of uncomfortable place they found themselves in last year’s Munster final against Tipperary, and then profit from it.
The test for Cork is to be at ease with themselves with the going gets tough. Because when Cork found themselves in a difficult spot against Tipp last November, they didn’t handle that predicament as well as they needed to.
Although Cork found themselves in a relegation semi-final, they showed against both Clare and Westmeath in the league that Cork were more at ease with themselves when the going was hard and tough.
Difficult questions were asked, and Cork found the answers on both occasions.
Tough questions have kept coming, especially with losing key players to injury and retirement, but Cork have been pragmatic in how they have tried to address every obstacle put in their way.
“We have been going along, developing the panel,” said Ronan McCarthy last week.
“You are always looking to make sure that you don’t have a scenario — and maybe in Cork we did in the past — where a player left and you were waiting three or four years to actually develop the next player to fill that space.
“We have been quite far-sighted in the way we have tried to develop the panel. It is next man up.”
For Cork, this could be a pragmatic win by five or six points, or else Cork could do a number on Limerick like they did two years ago.
Either way, the manner of the victory doesn’t matter, as long as Cork win.
Because anything else doesn’t bear thinking about for this group.