Strong Limerick bench press proves difference
Limerick 3-32 Cork 2-31
The history of most successful teams can be traced back to a particular occasion when they delivered a performance which suggested they possessed that special quality required to advance from contenders to champions.
Whether, in weeks - or even years - to come, Limerick will regard yesterday as that defining day remains to be seen, but it certainly had all the signs of being something different.
The manner in which they worked their way through what appeared a full-blown crisis after 62 minutes to book a place in the All-Ireland final for the first time since 2007 provided compelling evidence that their self-belief is such that adversity inspires rather than deflates.
It was shown to a lesser degree when Kilkenny headed them late on in the quarter-final but yesterday's defiance levels rose to much greater heights.
Facing a six-point deficit after being outmanoeuvred for almost half an hour, they launched a recovery package that not only wiped out Cork's lead but actually took them into a one-point lead before Patrick Horgan levelled it up in the fourth minute of added time.
It was a welcome reprieve for Cork but the signs were ominous as they headed for another gruelling 20 minutes.
Limerick had far more energy in the last 10 minutes of normal time and carried that advantage into extra-time which they won by 2-5 to 1-4. That flatters Cork, whose goal came late on at a time when they were seven points behind and all out of ideas.
Cork's post-mortem into the defeat by Waterford in last year's semi-final centred on the dismissal of full-back Damien Cahalane at the three-quarter stage but there can be no such mitigating consideration this time.
The hard facts were that they failed to protect a six-point lead, worn down by the sheer force of Limerick's intensity and will.
It was an formidable combination and owed much to the massive impact of the subs that John Kiely was in a position to introduce. He began the overhaul process by sending in Peter Casey after 51 minutes and while he did well, it was the contributions by Shane Dowling and Pat Ryan that really wrecked Cork.
Later arrivals, Barry Nash and David Reidy, also impressed, each clipping over a point late on. Limerick's subs scored a total of 2-6, with Dowling scoring 1-4 in what was probably the best performance off the bench by anybody this season.
He said afterwards that he was disappointed not to have made the starting team and judging from his performance, he used it as a powerful motivation when the opportunity arose.
He really was a major rallying force in the revival and carried it into extra-time, when he scored 1-1. The goal came from a penalty early in the second period when he drilled a low shot past Anthony Nash after he himself had been fouled.
Ryan followed up a few minutes later when he whizzed in along the endline and flicked the ball to the net. Nash and Reidy added further points, completing the picture of Limerick as a county with very deep talent reserves.
In contrast, Cork's impact off the bench was limited, which was always going to be seriously damaging once they were taken into extra-time.
Still, it will haunt them for a long time that they were unable to manage the game better after going six points ahead.
They had outscored Limerick by 1-8 to 0-5 between the 41st and 62nd minutes, a period when they played with an attacking creativity and a defensive competence that looked certain to steer them into the All-Ireland final for the first time since 2013.
Conor Lehane, who had a quiet first half, asserted himself powerfully, Darragh Fitzgibbon continued in his driving runs from midfield and when the consistent pressure yielded frees, Horgan converted most of them.
Frankly, Limerick looked like a beaten docket, but once Aaron Gillane, who finished the day on 0-13 (0-7 frees and 0-6 from open play) cut the margin to five points in the 63rd minute, the balance of power began to shift.
It was if Limerick sensed they were on to something, whereas Cork became all edgy and uncertain. The poise and precision which had marked their earlier play disappeared, replaced by error-strewn outbreaks which further encouraged Limerick, who reeled off seven unanswered points. That period of impressive productivity was all too much for Cork and while they took the game to extra-time, the signs were ominous. They scored the first point on the restart but that was as good as it got for them as Kiely's troops moved up a gear.
Limerick had led by 1-12 to 0-14 at half-time, having pounced for a goal by Cian Lynch just before the break, when his brilliant positioning was spotted by Seamus Flanagan, who completed an inch-perfect pass.
Cork would have been disappointed to find themselves behind at the break, having been slightly the better side throughout the first half. However, they shot ten wides, which enabled Limerick to stay close to them before striking for Lynch's goal.
Limerick lost the first 27 minutes of the second half by 1-12 to 0-8, leaving them with a puzzle they would not have solved in previous years.
It's all very different now. The confidence gained in a season where they have lost only two of 17 games in all competitions enabled them to figure out a way of getting back into contention before driving on to win it.
The big question going into yesterday's game was whether their inexperience of big occasions in Croke Park would come against them and while there were times that appeared to be the case, their sheer determination more than compensated.
Still, they lived on the edge at times, most of all after drawing level in stoppage time in normal time.
A Cork attack left Seamus Harnedy with a goal opportunity in 72nd minute, only to be denied by Limerick goalkeeper Nickie Quaid who flicked the ball away just as the Cork captain was about to shoot.
Truly, an inspirational moment by one of the most consistent 'keepers in the game.
A goal at that stage may well have seen Cork home and if Limerick go on to win the All-Ireland, Quaid's intervention will certainly go down as one of moments that made it possible.
Scorers - Limerick: A Gillane 0-13 (7f); S Dowling 1-4 (1-0 pen, 1f); G Mulcahy 0-4; C Lynch 1-1, G Hegarty 0-3; P Ryan 1-0; D Byrnes (f), D O'Donovan, K Hayes, T Morrissey, S Flanagan, B Nash, D Reidy 0-1 each. Cork: P Horgan 0-11 (10f); C Lehane 2-3; D Fitzgibbon 0-4; D Kearney, S Kingston 0-3 each; S Harnedy, C Coleman (1s/l) 0-2 each, C Joyce, L Meade, J O'Connor 0-1 each.
Limerick - N Quaid 8; S Finn 7, M Casey 7, R English 8; D Byrnes 7, D Hannon 7, D Morrissey 7; D Donovan 7, C Lynch 8; G Hegarty 8, K Hayes 7, T Morrissey 6; A Gillane 8, S Flanagan 6, G Mulcahy 7.
Subs: P Casey 7 for T Morrissey (51), S Dowling 9 for Flanagan (57), P Ryan 8 for Mulcahy (63), W O'Donoghue 7 for O'Donovan (71), S Hickey 7 for Byrnes (76), B Nash for Gillane (84), D Reidy for Hannon (86).
Cork - A Nash 7; S O'Donoghue 6, D Cahalane 7; C Spillane 6; C Joyce 7, E Cadogan 7, M Coleman 7; B Cooper 7, D Fitzgibbon 8; D Kearney 8, S Harnedy 7, L Meade 6,S Kingston 7, C Lehane 8, P Horgan 7. Subs: R O'Flynn 6 for Kingston (55), M Ellis 6 for Kearney (60), T O'Mahony 6 for Meade (64), M Cahalane for Cadogan (71), Kearney for Cahalane (start extra-time), Cahalane for Harnedy (76), Kingston for Fitzgibbon (77), J O'Connor for Kearney (84).
Ref - P O'Dwyer (Carlow)