Wednesday 13 December 2017

Stuttering Cork stumble into last eight


JOHN O'BRIEN at the Gaelic Grounds

IN the end, almost in spite of itself, it turned into an extraordinary encounter. We came to Limerick seeking to analyse Cork's All-Ireland credentials and, on so many levels, they fell short.

They failed to rouse themselves for most of normal time and then, when they raised a gallop and forged clear of their opponents, they took their foot off the pedal and allowed Limerick to force extra-time.

It wasn't the Leinster final of a couple of weeks ago, but it was a pulsating drama in its own right. Cork had eased into injury-time four points clear and seemingly cruising only for Alan O'Connor to concede a needless penalty for a foul on John Galvin -- converted by the excellent Ger Collins -- but you still fancied they'd hold on. But, inexcusably, they failed to claim possession from Alan Quirke's kick-out and Limerick sub Conor Fitzgerald was on hand to kick the equalising score.

Extra-time was tense and all about survival. Limerick, understandably, returned with a bit of pep in their step. But chances became hard to convert. Daniel Goulding missed a relatively easy free. Collins had a desperate wide at the other end. Donncha O'Connor finally eased Cork in front at the end of the first period. They weren't striding clear now, though. Limerick remained hot on their tails.

The finish was of epic proportions. Cork pulling two clear. Brian Scanlon converting a wondrous 45-metre free from the sideline. Paddy Kelly replying with a peach for Cork. Players falling from cramp like there was a sniper in the stands. Ian Ryan clawing the gap back to one. Fintan Goold scoring a free for Cork and, finally, Cork keeping their composure to hold out by two points, happy and relieved to escape with their lives.

It was rough justice on Mickey Ned O'Sullivan's heroic team who were determined not to go the way of other provincial finalists and make a meek exit from the championship. They'd suffered so much at the hands of Cork in recent seasons, yet there was nothing about their demeanour that suggested they didn't believe they could claim a significant scalp in front of their own supporters.

And they had Cork in trouble early. Collins had kicked them two points ahead, but that didn't reflect the extent of their dominance. Bad luck and a poor decision by referee Padraig Hughes had seen to that. An Ian Ryan free found John Galvin at the edge of the square and when it seemed certain the Limerick midfielder had been hauled down before he could execute a shot, Hughes bafflingly awarded the verdict the other way.

A short time later, Seanie Buckley cut a dash through the Cork defence and struck a vicious shot off the crossbar. Moments later, Ian Ryan looked to have extended their lead but his shot cannoned back off an upright. For all their superiority, Limerick weren't finding scores sufficiently easy to come by for them not to rue the misfortunes that came their way.

Cork were strangely subdued, miles short of the talented team that started off the summer as bookies' favourites for the championship. Derek Kavanagh finally got them going but it had taken them all of 14 minutes to register a score. Kelly chipped in with a free soon after and they had Limerick within their sights. And, although Cork went into the break on level terms, the first 35 minutes could not have pleased Conor Counihan or any of those Cork fans in a crowd just in excess of 10,000.

And perhaps the manager issued some choice words during the interval because Cork looked immediately fired up upon their return. Aidan Walsh kicked them in front for the first time in the match and a Goulding free pushed them further clear and suggested they would kick on and restore our belief in them as title contenders. But within six minutes, Limerick had whittled the lead back and a tight finish looked assured.

But they seemed to die then and Cork eased up a gear and raced away again. And the reason seemed simple enough when you looked at it. Counihan had a bench to draw on, Limerick not so much. Kavanagh had been a late replacement for Alan O'Connor and was a huge presence for Cork when things weren't going well. Late on, Counihan was able to introduce the likes of Nicholas Murphy and Donncha O'Connor -- huge weapons at a time when Limerick began to wilt.

And that, we reckoned, was that. Cork by four and cruising. But then came O'Connor's moment of madness on the edge of the Cork square. This time Hughes blew for the penalty. Then came Fitzgerald's late point and Cork's evening was about to get an awful lot tenser than they could ever have imagined.

Scorers -- Cork: D Goulding 0-6 (4f), D O'Connor (1f), P Kelly 0-2 each, F Goold (1f), D Kavanagh, A O'Connor, A Walsh, C Sheehan C O'Neill 0-1 each. Limerick: G Collins 1-4, S Lavin 0-2, B Scanlon (1f), J Ryan, C Fitzgerald, I Ryan, S Kelly (1f) 0-1 each

Cork: A Quirke; R Carey, M Shields, J O'Sullivan; N O'Leary, G Canty, P Kissane; D Kavanagh, A Walsh; P Kerrigan, P O'Neill, P Kelly; D Goulding, C Sheehan, C O'Neill. Subs: N Murphy for A Walsh (48), E Cotter for M Shields (75), D O'Connor for P Kerrigan (48) P Kerrigan for C Sheehan (87), F Goold for P Kelly 70

Limerick: B Scanlon; M O'Riordan, J McCarthy, A Lane; S Lavin, S Lucey, P Ranahan; J O'Donovan, J Galvin; P Browne, J Ryan, S Buckley; G Collins, I Ryan, S Kelly. Subs: M O'Riordan for C Mullane (38), E Joy for Browne (40), S Buckley for E Joy (73), E Oconnor for I Rayn (65), G Collins for J Mullane (84)

Referee: P Hughes (Armagh)

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