There’s a scene in the satirical comedy film Mike Bassett: England Manager, where the England team have assembled to talk through a four-nil World Cup defeat to Mexico. Searching for positives, coach ‘Doddsy’ scrambles for words before settling on “well ehh…on the positive side, those Mexicans were bloody brilliant weren’t they”. The introspection ends with the assistant manager leading the players in “Three cheers for Ramirez!” Post-mortems in Cork this week, and over the coming months, are likely to follow a similar trend. Those Limerick lads were bloody brilliant weren’t they! Three cheers for Cian Lynch! Hip-hip hooray! And who can blame us really? The general consensus seems to be that Limerick’s performance was so good, their stickwork so perfect, their game plan so meticulously implemented, that no team in Ireland could have lived with them. No need for the self-flagellation then, sure couldn’t it have happened to anyone? Whatever helps us sleep at night I suppose.
To be fair, It has been a good year. The week began with talks of a potential Rebel Treble, our first since 1970 and a feat that not too long ago, seemed another fifty years away from becoming a realistic possibility. So not to get all Meatloaf about it, but two out of three isn’t a bad week’s work, especially when the final leg was always going to be the most arduous. The ebullience of the Cork crowd and the carnival atmosphere around Dublin on Sunday afternoon owed much to the belief that this was a free shot. There was an optimism that we’d run Limerick close, although not many could substantiate those grounds with anything that would hold up in a court of law. The train of thought among the masses was that whatever happened, Cork would be back in the final again, sooner rather than later. And maybe the players felt that too? A smile stretched across the face of Robert Downey before the game, as he bounced around behind the Artane Boys Band in that distinctive languid style of his. That smile wasn’t long lasting. The optimism wasn’t either.
Seven weeks ago, in the Munster semi-final, Cork did a lot of things right and Limerick did a lot of things wrong. Yet when all was said and done, eight points still separated the sides. Last Sunday, Cork did a lot of things wrong, and Limerick did almost everything right. Do the maths yourself. Sixteen points could just as easily have been twenty-six. As much as it mightn’t have seemed like it at the time though, Cork started the game reasonably well. A beautifully choreographed attacking sequence culminating in Kingston’s goal cancelled out Hegarty’s strike almost immediately, while corner back Niall O’Leary strode forward to reduce the deficit to three after Gillane had billowed the net for Limerick’s second. A one-score differential after fifteen minutes, in a game where the only hope was to hang on in there for as long as possible and bank on a bit of madness or magic or both transpiring down the stretch, wasn’t the end of the world. Not by any means. By the time Fergal Horgan blew for the first water-break however, the writing was on the wall. Three points had become five and Cork supporters, and perhaps players alike, were beginning to come to the realisation that while one team was straining every sinew, the other was merely warming up. The evisceration hadn’t even begun. Is there much point dwelling on the rest?
The comparison with Kilkenny’s 2008 All-Ireland final obliteration of Waterford, a team performance so complete that RTÉ bizarrely awarded Brian Cody the Man of the Match award, was inevitable. The profile of the victims, however, is worlds’ apart. That Waterford side had been pushing that rock uphill for years and entered into their maiden final with nine players over the age of twenty-seven. Only Kevin Moran and Brick Walsh were still knocking about when they returned to a final in 2017. Is it tempting fate to forecast that it won’t take nine years for this Cork side, bolstered by the imminent arrival of the underage talent that has torched everything in its path over the past couple of months, to return to an All-Ireland decider? The team that lined out last weekend contained eleven players aged twenty-four or younger and that number would have risen to twelve had Ger Millerick been fit. When you consider that all but two were competing in their first final and that for the likes of Pa Collins, Jack O’Connor and Conor Cahalane, it was their first time starting a senior game in front of a wall of noise, mistakes must be both expected and accepted.
All of which isn’t to say that this young Cork team should be given a free pass and patted on the back for having the decency to show up to fulfil their role as sacrificial lambs. The defeat might have been inevitable but that’s not to mean that the game should have been over as a contest before half-time. Old failings pertaining to loose marking in the full-back line, the absence of physicality and shape around the middle-third and the ball-winning capabilities of the forward division, will leave a sour taste after a season in which so many of those questions appeared to have been answered. After the game, Kieran Kingston said it was “like trying to stop the tide with a bucket”. Fair enough, but the least you can do is ensure that the bucket doesn’t have any holes. Limerick’s second goal in particular, coming so soon after a hard-fought point by Jack O’Connor, will stick in the craw for some time, the ease by which it manifested itself owing more to Cork’s shortcomings than anything out of the ordinary on Limerick’s behalf. A supreme striker of the ball like Diarmuid Byrnes simply cannot be allowed that much time and space to ping a low-ball into the inside forwards; the full-back line simply cannot be left so cruelly exposed with acres of grass in front of them; and Sean O’Donoghue and Robert Downey simply cannot afford to get their wires crossed to such a calamitous extent that Aaron Gillane can find himself in a world of space on the thirteen-metre line, slap-bang in front of goal. Even an average team would have punished such basic indiscretions.
Before our semi-final meeting with Kilkenny, Enda McEvoy presciently likened the clash with a “contest to walk into the arms of a giant threshing machine”. As masochistic as it sounds, there is a modicum of comfort to be gleaned in the fact that we were the ones to get threshed. As Kellie Harrington recently put it, “the last mile is never crowded” and having been knocked out before the quarter-final stage last year, reaching the last-two this year is an achievement in itself. Not even a sixteen-point annihilation can overwrite the season’s narrative, which must steadfastly be remembered as one of progress. At all levels. But with progress comes expectation and now that Cork hurling has returned to relevance, next year’s aim will be to edge closer to the champions while maintaining a winning record against the rest of the also-rans. There’ll be no more free shots.
Kilkenny ’08, that All-Ireland final performance and indeed that season as a whole, is often viewed as the apex of their domination. That they went on to win three of the next four, and five of the next seven All-Irelands while on the descent, doesn’t bode well for the challengers to hurling’s latest overlords. For all the momentum gained by the Rebels this year, I’m afraid the empire still shows no signs of falling.