The Cork-Limerick rivalry has never been laced in enmity, at least not to the extent one might suspect between two hurling strongholds that share an eighty-mile embrace. Such cordiality is due, in no small part, to Limerick’s traditional place in the game, outside the hegemony of the ‘Big Three’. This, coupled with Cork’s innate haughtiness when in comes to hurling’s hierarchy, has ensured that Limerick (until recently, of course) have never been feared. And so it was, twenty years ago, when Eamon Cregan brought his young side to Pairc Ui Chaoimh for the opening round of the Munster Championship. Limerick hadn’t won a championship game since ’97 and had been comfortably beaten by Cork in ’98 and ’00. The Rebels, having erupted so spectacularly from their dormancy two years previously, were going for a three-in-a-row of provincial crowns and as sure as night follows day, the cockiness was back too. Three weeks before the game, Brian Corcoran suffered a broken finger in a club game against Sars. “We’re going to save you for Waterford”, advised Cork manager Tom Cashman to his talismanic centre-back. There would be no Waterford.
In truth, Cork’s unabashed and ultimately baseless self-assuredness had reared its head nine months prior to that in the All-Ireland semi-final, culminating in a one-point defeat to an aged and unfancied Offaly team. The Limerick game, however, is the one which sticks in the craw and remains unpleasantly embedded in the minds of many Cork supporters and players alike. “If we’d won that, we’d have done well that year…and the year could have taken off for us”, admitted Seanie McGrath, when recounting the lost season as part of Michael Moynihan’s excellent Blood Brothers: The Inside Story of the Cork Hurlers 1996-2008. All-Ireland winning captain Mark Landers was even more candid, doubling down on what could have been. “It was a fucking nightmare. I’ve no doubt we would have won the All-Ireland in 2001. We should have closed it out, but we didn’t…that’s where hunger comes into it, and Limerick were hungrier”.
It was a game that momentarily paled into insignificance days before, when the news spread that one of Cork’s most eminent players had been involved in a career-threatening accident. It was a game upon which scrutinous lights were cast a year later when the off field wrangling between the players and the County Board reached fever pitch. It was a game which featured one of Cork hurling’s most iconic, if ultimately futile, moments. And it was a game that proved to be the straw that broke the camels back in effectively rubber-stamping the retirement of one of the game’s greatest ever exponents. If the ’96 encounter between the two down the Páirc is generally accepted as the lowest ebb, the 2001 clash is widely perceived as the first sign that the totemic All-Ireland victory in ‘99 would not be sufficient in dragging Cork hurling out of the abyss. Indeed, much darker days were ahead.
Neither side had set the set the world ablaze in that year’s league campaign, the first to be completed in its entirety post-Christmas. Despite an encouraging start to Tom Cashman’s first year at the helm, which included an impressive early-season victory over Kilkenny, Cork’s season soon came a cropper below in Enniscorthy, where Cashman’s charges were bullied, beaten and made to embody every bit of their blood and bandages moniker. With Fergal McCormack struggling with injuries, Newtownshandrum’s Mike Morrissey had been drafted in to add some heft to an otherwise wispy forward division. He left Wexford with a shattered ankle. “If there was any game that turned me off hurling, it was that game”, Corcoran would later write. And with good reason, with the rapier-wielding Paul Codd continuing the trend of making short work of the Cork man’s digits. Morrissey never played for Cork again. Corcoran, in his truest guise as the fulcrum of Cork’s defence, never started another game.
But just as one inspirational centre-back was being forcibly removed from hurling’s premises, another one came careering through the door. A few weeks after Cork’s south-east shellacking, Ciarán Carey was once again donning his familiar No.6 geansaí, his timely return from a self-imposed exile sparked by Limerick’s fourteen-point league drubbing at home to Clare. Carey’s inter-county resurrection meant that, league-form and championship history notwithstanding, Limerick travelled south with little to fear. They certainly didn’t fear the use of supersonic sliothars, that’s for sure. In the lead-up to the game, the Limerick manager had unlocked the long-kept secret to Cork’s success, and he wasn’t shy in revealing his findings to the world. In Cregan’s eyes you see, ‘twas all about the ball. “These sliothars are made by the famous Cummins’ brothers and are lighter, faster and travel a longer distance. We sent someone down to Cork and he managed to get his hands on quite a few. This week we have been using them in training. I tell you they do make a difference and we will not mind Cork using them in Páirc Úi Chaoimh on Sunday. We will be playing Cork on a level playing field.”
Late selection changes aided further in levelling the playing field. On the Tuesday night before the game, Cork named their team. Cashman and co weren’t risking Corcoran, which mean that Newtownshandrum’s Pat Mulcahy was to make his de-facto intercounty championship debut at centre back, flanked by Wayne Sherlock and Sean Óg O’hAilpín. A couple of days later however, another third of that imperious half-back line was ruled out of contention. That Thursday evening, the luckless Cashman answered a phone call from O’hAilpín, who politely informed him that he had been involved in a car crash on the way home from a Guinness promotional gig above in Dublin, a serious accident from which he was fortunate to emerge relatively unscathed. With severed tendons and a kneecap floating half-way up his leg, he too wouldn’t be risked for the Limerick game. So in came Pat Ryan, with Derek Barrett switching to half-back.
On the day of the game, the Cork team met at Pairc Úi Rinn, ate their pre-match meal and waited for the team bus to ferry them the short distance through Ballintemple to Pairc Úi Chaoimh. They waited and waited some more. No bus arrived. Eventually, with time of the essence, the players filed into their cars and waded through the cheers and jeers of the matchday crowd. Hassle followed at the gates, where gardaí and stewards were naturally sceptical that the procession of vehicles seeking entry to the ground an hour before throw-in were in fact the reigning Munster champions. Some time past three, the Cork players finally arrived at their dressing-room, only to find it already occupied by the Cork intermediates. The gym, lacking in both benches and toilet facilities, would have to suffice. Consequently, as Cregan’s Limerick readied themselves to spring up from the long grass, the provincial title-holders were reduced to urinating on towels in the corner of a makeshift dressing-room.
Unsurprisingly, given Cork’s off-field travails, Limerick started the brighter of the two teams. A James Butler rocket after 12 minutes put the visitors four points ahead and by the interval, the gap had widened to six. At half-time, a heavily-strapped Corcoran was summoned to quell the threat of Ollie Moran and to provide a strong blast of air to the dying embers of Cork’s season. If they needed a spark, All-Star full back Diarmuid O’Sullivan duly obliged. Sully, who up to that point had been engaged in a titanic duel with the beanpole Brian Begley, converged on a low ball into the full-forward line before meeting the hapless Jack Foley with 15 stone of Cloyne granite and sending the ball between the posts from somewhere just off the Monahan Road. Soon after, Alan Browne hared away from Carey and bobbled the ball past Timmy Houlihan in the Limerick goal. Cork were right back in it, the deficit reduced to two.
When Joe Deane converted a free to put the home team in the driving seat with eleven minutes remaining, the game finally seemed to be heading towards its predicted outcome. Limerick refused to bow to their own history however, and the sides were still level when Wayne Sherlock’s clearance was half-blocked over the side-line by Owen O’Neill. At least, in the eyes of Sherlock and the rest of the Rebel contingent, it was half-blocked. The umpire saw otherwise and flagged for a Limerick line-ball. “Barry Foley here Ger, he’s quite capable of putting this over. He’ll go for this if he’s able”, prophesised co-commentator Cyril Farrell as the Patrickswell man stood over the liathroid, from an acute angle twenty metres in from the end-line. Go for it he did. He nailed it too and Limerick were ahead again. A helter-skelter finale ensued, Cork’s desperation for a last-gasp reprieve only heightened by the announcement that there would be no added time. Moments later, Mark Foley soloed out of defence and the referee blew his whistle. Cork’s season wouldn’t see June.
Cashman resigned almost immediately. One season, one game, one defeat. As Corcoran sloped off the field, he too knew his inter-county days were numbered. Cork’s vanquisher Eamonn Cregan meanwhile, when pressed for comment after the game, wasted no time in airing his dissatisfaction at those in the media who had questioned whether his team had the stomach for battle. “Everyone of them wrote us off. There was a statement in the Cork Examiner [it was actually the Irish Independent] last Saturday that there were four men on the Limerick team that would be afraid to go into a dark room. There’s the answer today.” Limerick’s jubilation was short-lived, however. Tipperary put paid to their provincial ambitions before a Damien Fitzhenry inspired Wexford stunned them in the All-Ireland quarter final. In fact, despite claiming the second of three All-Ireland U-21 titles in a row that September, Limerick didn’t win another game in Munster until 2007, by which time Cork were already on their descent from hurling’s summit. In two months time, the two meet again. This time, as the current crop of Limerick hurlers make it their business to illuminate every dark room they enter, it’s Cork’s turn to carry the burden of history and all the connotations of mental weakness that come with it.
“Finally, the Championship emerges from the loins of a fevered winter and hurling is in the wind again. Tomorrow, Cork and Limerick go toe-to-toe at Páirc Úi Chaoimh, the flames of foot-and-mouth mercifully sedated”, wrote Vincent Hogan in his pre-match preview all those years ago. Replace foot-and-mouth with you-know-what. Replace the febrile atmosphere of the old concrete bowl with Semple’s steely silence. Though roles-reversed, the rest remains the same. Munster kingpins versus the young pretenders, both hoping to ignite their summer.