THE celebrations from the Cork bench at the end were perhaps more than one might have expected after what was essentially a dead rubber for them.
However, having spotted Limerick a five-point first-half lead – and lost an influential player to a red card – Ben O’Connor’s side stuck to their task and outlasted their hosts in the closing stages to finish the oneills.com Munster U20HC round-robin stage with a 100 percent record.
Whatever happened at TUS Gaelic Grounds on Friday night, Cork were headed straight for the provincial final on Monday, May 15 but this result ensured they will do so with momentum and confidence intact. Limerick, who needed a win, are eliminated while Tipperary’s win over Waterford ensures second place and a home semi-final against Clare, who finished their programme with last week’s defeat to Cork.
Having trailed for all of the first half, Cork had managed to get in front midway through the second half but their lead was just a point, 1-16 to 0-18, when the manager’s namesake, centre-back Ben O’Connor of St Finbarr’s, was sent off for a second booking after a heavy challenge on Cian Scully.
With the next score going Limerick’s way as Patrick O’Donovan got his 11th point of the night, the expectation might have been that the Treatymen would go on to get the win to nudge Clare out of the knockout spots but Cork moved back in front through sub Timmy Wilk. Adam English replied and Limerick sub John Kirby did likewise after Ben Cunningham had made it 1-18 to 0-20 but a draw was no good for the home side as they had drawn with Clare and the Banner County had a better scoring difference. In the end, it didn’t matter as Cunningham scored his eighth to give Cork the win.
Before a crowd of 787 – down around 500 on the minor championship between the counties at the same venue on Tuesday – it was perhaps indicative of their greater need to harvest something from the game that Limerick led all through the first half, set on their way by Shane O’Brien’s opening point inside 15 seconds.
Patrick O’Donovan doubled the lead before Cork looked to have settled as a pair of Ben Cunningham frees drew them level, but Limerick continued to hold the whip hand.
With their attackers able to find space, good deliveries ensured a plentiful supply of ball and O’Donovan was able to punish any Cork fouls, leaving it 0-9 to 0-5 after 22 minutes with Adam O’Sullivan having scored two points for the visitors.
O’Connor at centre-back had begun to become more prominent for Cork, as evidenced by him creating O’Sullivan’s third, but Limerick always looked capable of an immediate response. When a Cunningham 65 was answered by O’Donovan’s seventh, it was 0-11 to 0-6 but Cork received a lifeline as David Cremin got on the end of Brion Saunderson’s puckout. While he was unable to get his shot away, the ensuing scramble allowed Diarmuid Healy to send the loose ball to the net and cut the deficit to just two points.
In tandem with that, the temperature of the game had risen as half-time approached and Cork felt that English was deserving of censure after an incident with captain Michael Mullins. For raising the matter with referee Niall Malone after the whistle went, manager Ben O’Connor received a yellow card.
By that stage, O’Donovan’s eighth point had made it 0-12 to 1-6 and Adam Fitzgerald made it a four-point game on the resumption. However, Cork began to get a grip in the middle thanks to Tadhg O’Connell and Cillian Tobin and soon they were on a roll.
Between the 36th and 45th minutes, they outscored Limerick by six points to two, with William Buckley, Healy and O’Connell getting nice points – the latter unlucky to see his shot whiz just over the bar – before Cunningham levelled with a free from halfway.
Both sides wasted chances, from open play and frees, to move ahead before sub Ross O’Sullivan gave Cork the lead for the first time and Buckley’s third gave them breathing space, 1-16 to 0-17.
Oisín O’Farrell responded for Limerick and, after the red card, O’Donovan levelled but it was Cork’s night.
P O’Donovan 0-11 (0-8 f), A English 0-3, S O’Brien, O O’Farrell 0-2 each, C Hayes, A Fitzgerald, J Kirby 0-1 each.
B Cunningham 0-8 (0-3 f, 0-1 65), D Healy 1-1, W Buckley, A O’Sullivan 0-3 each, T O’Connell 0-2, T Wilk, R O’Sullivan 0-1 each.
J O’Reilly; R Lyons, J Fitzgerald, E O’Leary; D Fitzgerald, E Hurley, C Scully; B Duff, M Gavin; A Fitzgerald, P O’Donovan, S O’Brien; O O’Farrell, A English, C Hayes.
F Fitzgerald for Duff, J Kirby for Gavin (both 43), S O’Neill for Hayes (52).
B Saunderson (Midleton); M Howell (Douglas), S Kingston (Ballinora), D O’Sullivan (Ballinhassig); J Dwyer (Ballincollig), B O’Connor (St Finbarr’s), M Mullins (Whitechurch); T O’Connell (Ballincollig), C Tobin (Bride Rovers); D Healy (Lisgoold), B Cunningham (St Finbarr’s), A O’Sullivan (Ballinhassig); C Walsh (Kanturk), W Buckley (St Finbarr’s), D Cremin (Midleton).
B Keating (Ballincollig) for Walsh (36), R O’Sullivan (Na Piarsaigh) for A O’Sullivan (38), C Doolan (St Finbarr’s) for Dwyer, T Wilk (Cobh) for Tobin (both 42), B Nyhan (Clyda Rovers) for Healy (60).
N Malone (Clare).