SUNDAY'S league semi-final was only seconds old when Ethan Twomey was coming out of the Cork defence with a ball and the Kilkenny pack lined him up and hunted Twomey down.
As he threw up the ball to strike it, Twomey was hooked and blocked down by a combination play from Timmy Clifford and John Donnelly. Martin Keoghan hoovered up the loose ball and passed it out to Richie Hogan, who drove it over the bar. Only 14 seconds on the clock and already the tone was set.
Kilkenny had six shots at the target in the opening six minutes before Cork even had a strike at goal. From their next seven shots at goal, Kilkenny mined 1-5. Cork did hang in and hold onto Kilkenny’s coat-tails but the game was only ever going one way after that first score.
Cork were flat. They were too loose, nowhere near as aggressive as they needed to be, especially against Kilkenny in Nowlan Park. Their energy was low. Their quality and execution levels were way off the standards this group have set, and what management demand.
Cork’s task was made much harder again once Eoin Downey was sent off but there was still never a stage in this match when Cork remotely looked like winning it. If anything, a six-point defeat could have been far uglier. Kilkenny could have had five goals, possibly even six.
Aside from one half-chance from Padraig Power, which he flashed over the bar in the first half, Cork never once looked like threatening Eoin Murphy’s goal. Overall, Kilkenny had 11 more shots (45-34).
In one sense, Cork may not be overly concerned at having lost this semi-final. After Limerick’s performance on Saturday night, did Cork really need to run the risk of getting drilled by Limerick in a league final, which could have set them back big-time before the championship?
Making that assumption might be unfair to Cork but it’s wholly realistic given how much last year’s league final defeat to Waterford damaged Cork in the lead-up to the championship. And Limerick are much more capable of inflicting that kind of destruction – mental and physical – than what Waterford did 12 months ago.
Moreover, a Cork-Limerick league final would have taken place in the Gaelic Grounds, which would have further reduced Cork’s chances of getting a result there.
Sunday’s performance didn’t tell Pat Ryan and his management anything they didn’t already know, especially around the issues that need to be addressed. The starting 15 for April 30 is still a riddle that can now only be solved through internal games and challenge matches over the next five weeks.
Every other team will be following the same path but most of those top teams at least have a clear idea of their best 15 from what they’ve seen in the league.
Cork just don’t know because they haven’t had all their players because of a chronic injury list. Sunday provided another headache with Eoin Downey now set to miss the Waterford game through suspension.
One of the biggest concerns Cork have had during this campaign, especially in the last three games is the amount of ball they are turning over, especially from their long game.
On Sunday, Cork turned over possession 41 times. They conceded 1-13 from that possession but that total could have been even higher; Patrick Collins’ brilliant save from Paddy Deegan came from a turnover, as did four other Kilkenny shots that went wide or dropped short.
Cork did mine 0-6 from those nine balls secured but those numbers are nowhere near where they need to be.
Having stacked their chips on that longer game, Cork will hope that strategy will be more successful once the pitches get harder and faster and their starting team starts to take clearer shape. But that part of their game needs to get sharper when Cork are being crucified so badly on turnovers.
Kilkenny did turn over a high share of ball too on Sunday but there was still a noticeable difference between how the ball was sticking in the Kilkenny forward line in comparison to how easy it was too often coming straight down the field after being struck into the Cork attack.
Being a man down did impact on the numbers in the second half but Cork only won three of the 13 long balls played into their forward line after the break.
From just five possessions in the first half, Power scored two points and was fouled for two frees. Yet even before Cork were reduced to 14 men, the supply inside had slowed down and so had the quality. Power’s only possession in the second half was a ball he picked up in his own half-back line in the 61st minute.
Outside of Power in the first half, Shane Barrett was Cork’s most productive forward overall, scoring three points, winning a free and having an assist from 13 possessions. Elsewhere, Robert Downey and Tommy O’Connell were Cork’s two best players.
Cork did a lot right in this league given how many players they were missing but their biggest challenges now lie in striking the right balance between personnel, patterns of play and a more clearly defined style before Waterford arrive in Cork on April 30.