For over half an hour, Cork did so much right. Limerick did so much wrong. That the All-Ireland champions left the field at half-time with a six-point cushion perfectly encapsulated both the cruelty and the ruthlessness of sport. The cruelty embodied in a deflected goal, an unfortunate ricochet off Cork’s otherwise impervious corner-back. The ruthlessness exemplified by a squandered penalty, a couple of silly mistakes here and there, and the universally held truism that when you come at the King, you best not miss. Doing only so much right was never going to cut the mustard when the gulf in class between the two teams is so vast. It was always going to be all duck or no dinner against this Limerick team and as such, Cork left Semple Stadium with an empty plate.
It’s probably too easy to say that Limerick were there for the taking. Maybe the result would have been different had Horgan’s penalty found the net and Cork thundered into those ten minutes with a pep in their step and a five-point lead to complement their numerical advantage. That save (Quaid’s making a habit of these) was worth more than three points, that’s for sure. The likelihood though is that Limerick would have reeled us in regardless. I mean, we don’t exactly have a track record in holding onto leads or seeing out close games. What’s disappointing is that we couldn’t test their mettle with ten or so minutes remaining, when there was four points between the teams. That running game is heavy on the legs and when you find that all the effort exerted after sixty minutes hasn’t translated to the scoreboard, it must feel like wading through treacle. Missed frees from Patrick Horgan to reduce the deficit to three siphoned any remaining energy reserves and by the end, Cork were running on fumes.
No point beating around the bush here, Patrick Horgan was simply not at the races, offering nothing from play and missing a host of frees that once upon a time, would have been converted with consummate ease. In the early part of his intercounty career, the worth of Horgan’s overall game was often called into question and those accusations will undoubtedly gain traction again, even more so now that his reliability from placed balls has begun to waver. In the modern game, where frees are handed out like communion wafers at the nine o’clock mass, unerring accuracy from placed balls is absolutely paramount. Before the game, Horgan went on record to air his disdain for the new yellow sliotars, about how “they’re not a good ball” and that “it just doesn’t travel really consistent”. Ever hear of the law of attraction? The belief that positive thoughts bring positive results into a person’s life, while negative thoughts bring negative outcomes? I mean, sure he might have a point and I’m not in a position to rebut his claims but at the same time, you could have thrown Hoggy an old pair of rolled-up socks a few years back and he’d have slotted it over the black spot without a second thought.
To be fair to the man, how many times has his genius papered over the cracks for us in the past? You’d think maybe someone could have reciprocated the favour and stepped up to the mantle for a change. Harnedy was replaced again, while Kingston and O’Flynn, as per, gave but fleeting contributions to the cause. It’s been said often enough that Cork possess forwards capable of winning any game but are hamstrung by the porosity of their defence. Perhaps such claims held water a few years ago but it has become abundantly clear that the inverse is closer to the truth. From 1 to 9, Cork performed admirably, from 10 to 15 is where the problems lay. Jack O’Connor, to give him his due, snuck three points from a limited supply, while Shane Barrett, upon entry, did more than enough to warrant a first championship start the next day out. Cork needed goals though, quite a few of them in fact. We all knew that from the outset. But apart from Kingston’s first-half strike and a penalty that wasn’t a penalty, Nickie Quaid wasn’t troubled. You won’t go far with seventeen points either.
If there are positives to be found, it’s in defence. O’Mahony and Cadogan (apart from a couple of brainless fouls) were effective in negating the influence of Limerick’s half-forwards, helped in no small part by the dogged Ger Mellerick who worked tirelessly in his execution of the Bill Cooper role. We need to talk about Sean O’Donoghue though. Jackie Tyrrell, in his always insightful column for the Irish Times, wrote last Friday about the importance of the “shutdown corners” i.e. corner-backs that are tasked with nullifying the opposition’s main threat and whose performances are measured solely on what their opponent doesn’t do. “At the top”, Tyrrell wrote, “the creme de la créme, are Seán Finn and Cathal Barrett. They are the studs, the masters of the craft. Then you have the next tier of guys such Richie English, Conor Delaney, Rory Hayes, Conor Gleeson and Shane Reck, all looking to move into the top bracket. The top teams all need one of these guys.” Cork now have one in O’Donoghue, ‘The Inniscarra Dam’, crafted from solid concrete and entrusted to prevent, or at least restrict, the flow of scores. As always, he had the boldness to take the ball and ran with it too, his supreme pace and power unhindered by the extra weight of Aaron Gillane trapped in his back pocket.
It was a four-point defeat to Waterford in the opening game last October. The deficit may have doubled last night, but the manner of defeats are chalk and cheese. Last year’s performance in the Munster semi-final was as listless as you can get, one which ultimately brought the curtain down on a number of intercounty careers. This time around, heartlessness and timidity can’t be laid at the door of this Cork team, ten of whom are aged 24 or younger. The numbers show that Limerick were outperformed in terms of hooks, blocks and tackles, which is no mean feat either. Donal O’Grady appositely refers to such as ‘the basics’, for they are exactly that. Basic facets of the game, but ones which Cork teams have lacked in abundance for too long now. So you can take whatever negatives you want from that performance and that result. There’s enough of them there, fill your boots. Or you can dig beneath the surface and sieve through all the dirt for small nuggets of hope. A young team that for large portions of the game gave as good as they got against the (admittedly poor) All-Ireland champions.
It’s not much, but it’s something.