LIMERICK and Cork face each other at the Gaelic Grounds next Sunday in what is effectively the first real knockout game of the championship, as the winners will secure a place in the All-Ireland series while the losers will face elimination in the Munster round-robin stage.
A few weeks ago if you had been told that Cork needed to win their final game away to Limerick to progress you might have despaired, although you might also have assumed that you might be facing an already qualified Limerick team, but John Kiely’s charges are having their own issues this year.
Limerick’s aura has most certainly slipped in the three matches they have played in this year’s Munster Championship. They barely got over what the form guide has shown to be a very poor Waterford side and got truly turned over by Clare in their own backyard. Everyone was waiting for, and really expecting, a real backlash in their third game against Tipperary on Sunday in Thurles, but that never really came.
They were decent, but Tipperary were arguably the better side over the course of the 70 minutes, even if they required a last-minute John McGrath free to force a draw.
Both Cork and Limerick have a defeat to Clare and a draw with Tipp from their last two games, meaning that the confidence levels of both sides will not be sky-high heading into Sunday’s kill-or-be-killed encounter. Their respective wins over Waterford seem a long time ago now.
A lot of Limerick’s leading lights have been nowhere near last year's ridiculously high levels, at least not yet. Aaron Gillane’s free-taking and general shooting from play has been a bit wayward and Cian Lynch has not been the influential playmaker that he has been in previous years. Gearoid Hegarty also has been a bit off colour, and not been the alpha hurler of last year’s campaign, while a defence short the brilliance of Sean Finn is always going to look less sound.
There is still ample quality dotted throughout the side, so they can absorb one or two stars being a little off-colour, but the small dip in standard from Limerick does give Cork more than a glimmer of hope next weekend.
There was simply too much firepower left sitting on the Cusack Park pine for too long, which allowed Clare race into an eight-point lead, that ultimately proved too high a hurdle for Pat Ryan’s men.
On Sunday Cork need to go for broke. Shane Kingston does offer a huge amount of impact off the bench but with Robbie O’Flynn not available it might be time to start the Douglas flyer and hope that he can get at Limerick from the get-go.
Tim O’Mahony has not got many minutes to date but Cork need his tenacity and physicality for the fight that Limerick are destined to bring to proceedings. You could make a similar case for the likes of Sean Twomey to start too, but that is probably too far left field.
Shane Barrett gets on a lot of ball and may be worth a start, while in defence it might be time to trust Eoin Downey to reproduce his league form, as the backline could do with some more steel for Sunday.
Speaking of left-field calls. Downey can now play in next Sunday’s U20 All-Ireland final against Offaly thanks to a change in the date of that fixture.
That would also mean that any of the other U20 stars could potentially play in both games as well.
Considering the form of Ben Cunningham and Cork’s need for ball-winning, scoring wing forwards, it might not be a completely crazy idea to bring in the young St. Finbarr’s forward, even if off the bench. Limerick’s young forward Cathal O’Neill sliced over five points against Tipp. Sometimes there is nothing like gambling on youth.
It has been difficult for Cork to find the best championship line-up without having O’Flynn, Mark Coleman and Alan Connolly available. With them entering the last chance saloon on Sunday in the Gaelic Grounds it is high time that Cork figured out their best team.