Tuesday 15 October 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Cork hurlers should not be mistaken with the Cork County Board or the football team'

Niall O'Leary, left, and Darragh Fitzgibbon of Cork celebrate
Niall O'Leary, left, and Darragh Fitzgibbon of Cork celebrate
Rebel hotshot: Patrick Horgan of Cork celebrates after scoring his side’s goal against Limerick yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

There is nothing more dangerous than a cornered Rebel. The grave was dug, the obituaries written, the flowers ordered. It turns out rumours of Cork's demise were greatly exaggerated.

Those are tempting rumours. Cork, with its white elephant monstrosity of a home stadium, its weirdly stubborn officials and its fast-fading footballers, is so gloriously dysfunctional it's hard to resist adding the hurling team to the honour roll of underachievement.

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Before yesterday's game that old chestnut about the players lacking faith in the management surfaced yet again. Those throwing it out there may not have a bull's notion how the Cork team feel about John Meyler, but this has been a popular line so why not give it another whirl? It seems you can say what you like about Cork this weather.

Meyler's selection suggested desperation might be setting in. The half-back line had Mark Ellis, who hadn't started for the Rebels in 11 months, alongside 19-year-old debutant Robert Downey.

Limerick, as irresistible in this year's League as in last year's Championship, seemed ideally placed to hammer another nail in the coffin of Cork hopes. So much so that after an evenly contested first-half the home side were still 1/3 on to prevail after the break.

I mean Cork, right? What a mess. But Cork hurlers should not be mistaken with the Cork County Board or the football team. They had the motivation of absolutely having to win. A loss would not have eliminated the Rebels, but who'd have fancied them to triumph in Fortress Ennis having lost in Limerick?

Cork manager John Meyler urges on Seamus Harnedy from the sideline. Photo: Sportsfile
Cork manager John Meyler urges on Seamus Harnedy from the sideline. Photo: Sportsfile

This was the point of no return for Meyler's team and they played like they knew it. You'd have thought they needed to get the breaks to cause a shock, but they didn't and it didn't matter. Losing Conor Lehane to injury after six minutes should have been a huge blow, but his replacement Alan Cadogan seemed to set the tone for Cork with a performance of immense energy and daring which unnerved the Limerick full-back line.

It didn't help Cork that Pat Horgan had the worst free-taking day of his life. But it didn't seem to bother them. It didn't even seem to bother Horgan. In the 41st minute he missed a free you'd have fancied him to point using one of those plastic Wavin hurls from the Seventies. Two minutes later he was striking a magnificent long-range point back over his shoulder.

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Eight minutes after that he latched on to a long Luke Meade delivery and beat Nicky Quaid with the confidence of a man who'd missed nothing all day.

This Cork performance had 'we will not be denied' running through it like Knock runs through a stick of souvenir shrine rock. Forget the folksy crap about 'Corkness'. This was the performance of a side which has played nine Munster Championship games in the last three years and lost just one.

Cork know the territory. Limerick, even though they're All-Ireland champions, not so much. Yesterday was the end of innocence for John Kiely's wonder kids. Last year they enjoyed almost complete freedom. Outsiders in nearly every game, Limerick had nothing to lose. All was coltish exuberance and unstoppable momentum. They were like Wile E Coyote who even when he goes over the cliff keeps running on air because he hasn't looked down.

Limerick looked down yesterday, saw the abyss and, like Wile E, rapidly plummeted earthwards. It's easy to assure everyone that winning an All-Ireland hasn't lessened your hunger. But you can't know. You find out in the heat of a Championship match and when the heat came on Limerick wilted.

The seven-week lay-off since the league final will be invoked as an excuse, but Limerick didn't look rusty and started well. Not till the second-half turned into a scrap did their players comprehensively lose their battles.

The measured short passing game previously hailed as the last word in sophistication looked ponderous and predictable when Cork closed Limerick down. The reliance on physical power seemed primitive compared to the subtlety and variety of the visitors' attack.

Mike Casey can’t hide his disappointment at the end. Photo: Sportsfile
Mike Casey can’t hide his disappointment at the end. Photo: Sportsfile

Take the excellent Graham Mulcahy out of it and the Limerick attack scored a paltry 0-3 from play. Nothing summed up their shortcomings more than the sight of Aaron Gillane being taken off four minutes from time. The prodigious full-forward was almost completely subdued by Eoghan Cadogan.

Destroyed

Cadogan might have been expected to struggle, but his intelligent policing job was as much a marvel as the swashbuckling display of his brother at the other end of the pitch. Ellis and the teenage Iron Man did well too.

The Cork attack scored 1-20 from play and utterly destroyed a defence whose full-back line struggles will have Tipperary licking their lips. Limerick's race is not yet run but a performance like this won't see off Clare, let alone Tipp.

Rudyard Kipling's advice about treating triumph and disaster just the same has few followers in the Rebel army. These days every Cork championship campaign is an emotional roller coaster.

The county labours in unfamiliarly fallow country. Failure to win this year's Liam MacCarthy Cup would make this the first decade in GAA history without an All-Ireland senior hurling title.

Should Meyler's men succeed, yesterday will be seen as a crucial turning point.

No need to read Funeral Blues for Cork just yet. The Walking Dead are back on the road again.

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