WHEN classy points from Cathail O'Mahony and Kevin O'Donovan trimmed the gap to one after 49 minutes, with newcomer John Cooper heavily involved in both, it looked like Cork would keep Kerry all the way at sun-kissed Páirc Uí Rinn.
Instead, the Kingdom reminded everyone why they reign supreme in Munster. Cork only managed one more point, a classy curling effort from Eoghan McSweeney; Kerry scored more in the closing 25 minutes (12) than the Rebels did all game (11). It was a beating they didn't deserve in terms of effort and work-rate but the gulf in quality and confidence told ultimately.
Jack O'Connor had a raft of impact subs, including Paul Geaney, Paul Murphy and David Moran, whose heft in the middle third helped pin Cork in on their own kick-outs for the majority of the last quarter. Cork's marquee players visibly tired, with Seán Powter coming off and Ian Maguire out on his feet at the end. When Kevin Flahive limped off in the closing minutes, the bench was already emptied.
Referee Brendan Cawley certainly couldn't be accused of any hometown decisions, as all the marginal calls went against them in the second half, but Kerry improved their discipline at the back after the break.
It reflects how far Cork have fallen that a 12-point defeat was still a vast improvement on last year's hammering in Killarney.
There were positives though. Cathail O'Mahony arched over three magnificent points and was fouled for two converted frees; rookies Rory Maguire and Cooper were prominent throughout; Sherlock's first-half free-taking was exemplary; Maurice Shanley held Tony Brosnan to a point; Douglas duo Powter and Flahive were immense.
Cork's first half was particularly encouraging without suggesting they were capable of actually winning. Defensively they were structured solidly, with Powter sweeping across to collect a number of key possessions around the D.
Daniel Dineen was also operating primarily inside Cork's half-backs to supplement the backs trying to cope with the threat of the Cliffords, Seán O'Shea and co. John O'Rourke also foraged deep.
The issue was at the other end. Shots from play were hard-earned, given the intensity of Kerry's swarm tackling, O'Mahony and Sherlock clipping over 0-1 apiece. There were only two other attempts from play, two wides and one short into Shane Ryan's hands. The clinical free-taking of Sherlock was a bonus, five from five in that opening period.
This was David Clifford's 18th championship game, which has yielded 6-75, and a stunning 5-59 from play. Cork did very well on him here, Flahive matching his physicality with just 0-1 to go with his three frees.
For all the talk of a reduced capacity being insufficient to cope with the demand, tickets were readily available in the days beforehand. The 'Páirc Uí Rinn or nowhere' stand hadn't drummed up too much extra interest from Cork fans pretty underwhelmed by recent results in both codes.
Yet those in the attendance of 10,773, including soccer legend Roy Keane, were given a bit to cheer about until the last-quarter Kerry takeover.
Unquestionably there would have been a larger crowd in Fitzgerald Stadium, between the natives unwilling to travel over the county bounds and Leesiders heading down for the atmosphere and occasion, but the gap between the counties was clearly off-putting. That Cork were staggering 14-1 long shots reflected the harrowing 18 months since Mark Keane grabbed a dramatic late winner during the Covid disrupted 2020 championship.
Since then, the Rebels were beaten in a home Munster final they failed to deliver in, shipped a record-beating humiliation from Kerry in Killarney, changed managers and were fortunate to escape relegation to Division 3 again. A share of the players who stunned Kerry two years ago started on Saturday: Brian Hurley, John O'Rourke, Mattie Taylor Mícheál Aodh Martin, Maurice Shanley, Kevin Flahive, Kevin O'Donovan, Ian Maguire, Sean Powter and Colm O'Callaghan. Seán Meehan would have been there too if he wasn't injured.
Mark Keane of course opted for hurling after turning his back on the AFL but was this week quoted in Australia about being interested in a return to Collingwood. It's not a huge turnover of players though Cork did opt for two rookies in defence, Éire Óg's Cooper and Maguire (Castlehaven). Neither were out of their depth.
Cork football has seemingly been cursed by injuries at all levels. The U20s went down to Kerry last month shorn, among others, Jack Lawton, Eoghan Nash, Conor Corbett, Hugh O'Connor and more due to a variety of injuries. Clyda Rovers sharpshooter Corbett would have been in the senior squad if he didn't damage his cruciate last season, though he's nearing a return.
When all those promising youngsters return to fitness there's the nucleus of a Cork squad that could become competitive again in Munster. But this showed there's still a bit to go.