Vincent Hogan: Off-key Rebels quietly perform exercise in denial
The colour was authentic summer, the old bowl by the marina tingling under a perfect, gaping sky. But in noise and animation, this had all the tumult of a Rotary Club golf outing.
Cork duly eased into their first Munster hurling final in four years, completing the journey with hurried, sometimes awkward strides. Yet, one statistic lingered as a tell-tale denouement for this contest of illusory heat.
The first time Limerick managed consecutive scores arrived with a brace of Thomas O'Brien points on the cusp of full-time. Cork, essentially, looked like a team operating off the margins of their talent. Had there been a requirement to dig deeper, they could have met it.
Let it be said, Limerick had some wonderful performances. Shane O'Neill of South Liberties recovered from a nightmare opening 20 minutes to have a storming game and his partners on the full-back line, David Breen and Kieran O'Rourke, completely bossed their stations too.
Breen, especially, found the measure of Aisake O hAilpin, though the quality of delivery wasn't facilitated by the kind of attention deficit that had overcome so many Tipperary players three weeks earlier.
Limerick hurled with palpable honesty, yet they were on a damage limitation assignment. With 24 of the county's best hurlers occupied elsewhere, it required quite a leap of the imagination to think they could trouble a side that had emulsified Tipp.
Yet they needlessly steepened the gradient for themselves with two incidents approaching half-time.
First, Paudie McNamara failed to convert a penalty after James V O'Brien had been floored en route to the Blackrock-end goal. Then wing-forward Sean Herlihy was red-carded for swinging back with his hurley into the face of Cork substitute Shane Murphy.
It meant that Limerick went to their tea a depleted army, trailing 0-6 to 1-10 and having spurned the opportunity to apply some semblance of pressure on a slightly befuddled and mis-firing Cork.
Horgan had blazed home a 10th- minute penalty after being dragged down by O'Neill and when referee James Owens spread his arms for a repeat offence in the 20th minute, the immediate worry must have been that O'Neill might get the line.
But Owens' humanitarian side overcame the pedant seemingly favoured by assessors and O'Neill thanked him for his kindness by saving Horgan's second penalty.
In truth, Cork lacked intensity and a team without intensity is one prone to taking too much out of the ball.
They won few 50-50 contests and, too often, indulged in ambling cross-field passes when a direct route beckoned.
With their full-forward in virtual shut-down mode, they came to depend on their half-forwards for scores. Niall McCarthy, especially, stepped up to the mark, delivering 0-5 from play and endlessly making himself available on a day when some men in red seemed a mite resentful of Limerick's energy.
The O'Connor twins hurled sweetly too, yet there was never a sense of the power and body intelligence that franked their eviction of Tipperary.
On breaking ball, especially, Cork equivocated. Limerick, by contrast, started in fifth gear and never changed. Their defiance was encapsulated by O'Neill's wonderful, diving block on Michael Cussen with three minutes of normal time remaining.
Likewise, the performance of Graeme Mulcahy in attack matched that of any man wearing red. Indeed, but for a wonderful 59th-minute Donal Og Cusack save, Mulcahy would have finished the game's top scorer.
Yet, this was never a contest up for decision. It was an exercise in book-keeping.
Cork had deployed Shane O'Neill as their extra-man for the second period and he swept up nonchalantly, Limerick reverting to a two-man full-forward line of James V O'Brien and substitute Peter Russell.
From a long way out, it was clear that Limerick needed goals, yet the withdrawal of a disappointing McNamara at half-time pretty much deprived them the option of a natural target-man.
Every Limerick point was followed, almost instantaneously, by a Cork score, stiffening the suspicion that Walsh's was a team working well within itself. They closed the game out with an unanswered pocket of four points early in the second half and, thereafter, the game was all but defined by the sight of McCarthy torquing onto Cusack puck-outs and rifling nonchalant scores.
Paudie O'Sullivan did well to round Breen (the only time anyone did) and bat a clever finish in the 69th minute to fatten the scoreline in Cork's favour. Yet, Denis Walsh captured the oddity of all with his post-game assessment that the Rebels' attack had, essentially, mis-fired despite the accumulation of 2-19.
Justin McCarthy chose not to speak to media afterwards. His team had arrived in Cork as 100/1 outsiders so, in the circumstances, a 13-point deficit may be regarded as an achievement.
Yet, in reality, this wasn't a Cork-Limerick Munster Championship game in anything but name. It was an exercise in denial. And, for Limerick, Heaven alone knows how long it's destined to run.
Cork now meet Waterford on July 11 in Thurles. Expect the temperature to rise.
SCORERS -- Cork: N McCarthy 0-5, P Horgan 1-2, P O'Sullivan 1-1, J O'Connor 0-3, B O'Connor 0-3 (0-1f), K Murphy 0-2, J Gardiner, C Naughton and L McLoughlin 0-1 each. Limerick: T O'Brien 0-5 (0-4f), G Mulcahy 0-3, A Brennan, A Owens and C Mullane 0-1 each, P McNamara 0-1 free.
CORK -- D Og Cusack 8; S O'Neill 7, E Cadogan 7, B Murphy 5; J Gardiner 7, R Curran 7, S Og O'hAilpin 7; L McLoughlin 7, C Naughton 6; B O'Connor 7, J O'Connor 7, N McCarthy 8; K Murphy 6, A O'hAilpin 5, P Horgan 7. Subs: S Murphy 6 for B Murphy (32), P O'Sullivan 7 for Horgan (49), M Cussen 6 for A O'hAilpin (49), G Callanan 6 for Naughton (53), R Ryan 6 for S Og O'hAilpin (62).
LIMERICK -- T Flynn 8; S O'Neill 7, D Breen 8, K O'Rourke 8; S O'Riordan 6, B O'Sullivan 7, P Browne 7; T O'Brien 8, A Brennan 7; JV O'Brien 5, P McNamara 4, S Herlihy 4; G Mulcahy 8, A Owens 6, R McKeogh 5. Subs: L O'Dwyer 7 for O'Riordan (23), C Mullane 6 for McNamara (h-t), P Russell 6 for McKeogh (h-t), N Quaid 6 for Brennan (43), A O'Connor 6 for Owens (59).
Ref -- J Owens (Wexford).