AFTER Cork’s loss to Limerick in the Munster SHC semi-final, we felt that we were left with something of a what-if moment.
When Peter Casey fouled Conor Cahalane and was sin-binned, with Cork awarded a penalty, the Rebels led by two points after performing well up to then. Had Patrick Horgan found the net from the 20m line, it would have opened up a five-point lead with a ten-minute period of 15 men against 14 to come.
Unfortunately for Cork, Limerick goalkeeper Nickie Quaid saved Horgan’s shot and the Shannonsiders actually managed to draw level during the spell where they were a man down, before then firing in two goals in quick succession to lead by six at half-time.
It wasn’t exactly a comfort blanket in the wake of what was ultimately an eight-point loss, but there was a glint of a feeling that the All-Ireland champions’ invincibility could at least be pierced, forcing them to answer tough questions.
In Sunday’s Munster final, we got our answer as to what probably would have happened if Limerick had fallen five points behind – they’d have upped it a gear and produced the kind of hurling that few if any other teams can live with.
The third quarter of Sunday’s game was a sight to behold, unless you were from Tipperary. Having been disjointed in the first half, making the most un-Limerick-like mistakes, John Kiely’s men showed exactly why they are All-Ireland champions. Between the start of the second half and the water-break, they outscored their opponents by 1-10 to 0-1, eradicating the ten-point half-time deficit. Kyle Hayes’s wonder-goal after the action resumed helped to bed any doubts about the Treatymen completing the first provincial three-in-a-row since 1989, when Tipperary went back-to-back-to-back.
Are they unbeatable? No, because nobody is. Cork have beaten Limerick in the recent past, not least 2019 in the Gaelic Grounds when the hosts were the reigning champions, as they are now. Are they incredibly difficult to beat? Well, how else would you describe a team that gave their opponents a ten-point start and still won by five?
Right now, it’s very difficult to see Limerick being denied what would be a third All-Ireland in four years – the last county other than Kilkenny to enjoy such a dynastic period was Cork’s three in a row from 1976-78 inclusive, though Galway (1987-88) and Cork (2004-05) have retained the title since then.
Looking at things from a Cork point of view, four straight wins would be needed in order to avoid a new longest drought between senior hurling All-Irelands, but any such talk is fanciful in its own right and overlooking the fact that Saturday’s qualifier against Clare in Limerick is a huge tie in and of itself.
While past performance is no guarantee of how things might go in the future, Cork have not tended to do well after losing their first Munster championship match – last year and in 2016 (the last before the introduction of the round-robin), they beat Dublin in the qualifiers but were then eliminated and, while there were two wins in 2016, against Wexford and Clare, the exit to Galway still came at the quarter-final stage.
Though Cork did reach the All-Ireland final through the back door in 2013, they had made it through to the Munster final, beating Clare in a provincial semi, so the route to the showpiece day was achieved through All-Ireland quarter- and semi-final wins over Kilkenny and Dublin respectively.
With Tipperary eliminating Cork from the provincial championship, they regrouped to overcome Wexford in the qualifiers and then Waterford at the quarter-final stage, eventually losing out in the semi-finals to a Galway side that was beaten by Kilkenny in the final but only after a replay.
Matching that achievement – two back-door wins to make it to a semi-final – would represent a good year for Cork, we feel, allowing something to build on for 2022 as more of the alumni from the 2020 All-Ireland U20 victory come on stream.
But, to state the bleeding obvious, you can’t win your second qualifier match until you win your first and Clare have the benefit of a win under their belts ahead of this weekend’s meeting on the Ennis Road.
That will count for something – and Clare have shown strong starts in all three of their championship matches in any case – so Cork have no excuses for being caught cold in the early stages.
Cork could go 10 points down and win, as Limerick did, but it’s something you’d only believe could happen once you’d witnessed it. The margin for error is slim to non-existent.