Last year has no currency in Munster

Cork’s Aidan Walsh and Shane Kingston tussle with Limerick’s Richie English and Dan Morrissey during the Munster SHC clash at the LIT Gaelic Grounds yesterday. Picture: James Crombie

Precisely a year ago at this venue it was Tipperary who sleepwalked into an ambush and a ravenous Limerick who pounced upon them.

Yesterday those hunters were hunted, and hunted down, by a Cork team smarting from being jumped upon themselves last week. 

In Munster hurling there are no guards of honour formed. Expect one, as everything about Limerick yesterday seemed to suggest as they made their entrance onto the field and into this championship, and you’ll be greeted by a clatter, not a clap. 

Last year has no currency here. And as Cork emphatically reminded themselves and everyone, last week is in the past as well. 

It’s all about what you do now. And what we have now is a Munster Championship as open and as riveting as any we’ve had.

Even Waterford are back in the mix when at 4pm everyone outside the Cork camp assumed themselves and John Meyler’s team were out of it; You’d have to think after yesterday’s chastening defeat in Thurles, Waterford will be a dangerous wounded animal themselves when Limerick enter their den on June 2. 

With no relegation, this year’s league always had a phony feel about it, not least its climax in Croke Park, but there’ll be nothing phony about that Limerick-Waterford clash in Walsh Park.

It should be pointed out that it’s 50 days ago now since that league final. It’s many years since a league champion has had to wait such a long time for championship action. 

Instead of rolling into Wimbledon having won the French Open, the league now seems as distant as the Australian Open. 

Yesterday John Kiely’s charges simply couldn’t get near the pitch they were playing at during the spring, let alone last summer, their momentum stalled, their jets cooled.

The honesty and hurling they served up in the league should still stand to them, but yesterday will have brought them on even more. 

As Cork’s response and performance here demonstrated, there’s nothing like a championship game to shake off any cobwebs or complacency.

Cork’s man-of-the-match Eoin Cadogan races out to challenge Limerick’s Aaron Gillane in the Munster SHC Round 2 clash at the LIT Gaelic Grounds yesterday. Picture: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Cork’s man-of-the-match Eoin Cadogan races out to challenge Limerick’s Aaron Gillane in the Munster SHC Round 2 clash at the LIT Gaelic Grounds yesterday. Picture: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Yesterday Cork were everything they weren’t against Tipp. They were ravenous, aggressive, fluid, smart. 

In his immediate post-match interview for RTÉ radio, John Meyler used the term “workrate” six times in 60 seconds. It hadn’t been there against Tipp; it had to be there against Limerick. And it was. 

Earlier in the year Limerick’s Seamus Flanagan said that it was impossible for an opponent to outwork his team but yesterday he and his teammates discovered they have no such patent.

Cork’s aggression wasn’t just measurable in tackle, block and hook counts; it also revealed itself in the foul count. 

Normally that is a less desirable category to top — older Limerick fans will remember that Wexford attributed much of their 1996 success to holding Gary Kirby to just two frees — but yesterday Cork were clearly willing to err on the side of aggression rather than tentativeness. Against Tipperary they had coughed up 2-24 from play. 

Yesterday they held Limerick to 1-7 from play. Outside of Graeme Mulcahy, the rest of the home side conjured up just 0-3 from play.

Eoin Cadogan exemplified Cork’s defiance, stifling Aaron Gillane. 

Niall O’Leary followed up on his impressive championship debut last week with another Wayne Sherlock-style display here, while Steven McDonnell, upon his introduction after half-time, looked as if he had never been away last year on a sabbatical. Instead he looked like the Munster final-winning captain he had been in 2017.

Mark Coleman and Darragh Fitzgibbon, two debutants that year, were back playing with their normal zeal and zest after uncharacteristically flat performances against Tipp, though that may have been in part due to having such physical players like Mark Ellis and Bill Cooper back within such close proximity.

Cooper is an underrated and unassuming player, but the fact that’s not the first time you’ve heard that means he’s a lot more heralded and less maligned than Ellis. 

Cooper was named to start against Tipp last week, only to miss out due to injury. Ellis wasn’t even on the matchday 26. 

Handing him the number six jersey yesterday was less an act of trust as desperation from the management but in giving him one more chance to salvage himself, Ellis likewise helped save them. Even in the first half, when Limerick were never more than a point behind Cork, some of Ellis’s pin-point stickpassing to the Cork shooters was exemplary.

Twenty years ago when Cork successfully pursued a Munster and All Ireland crown, this writer used to do a little weekly segment comparing players of that era with ones that had gone before. 

More than once I called Justin McCarthy for him to describe the merits of some of his old teammates like Charlie McCarthy and John Horgan and there was one word he’d use that was particularly noteworthy. 

Not only would he break down and laud their tremendous technical skill but he’d speak about their “pride”. Each of them was “a proud player”. 

They had standards they wanted to maintain for themselves and for Cork and did not want to be the losing of any game for Cork.

Yesterday everything about Cork and every Cork player screamed pride.

A forward line that has been accused as silky but soft yesterday showed steel, both of the mental and physical variety.

Seamus Harnedy provided the ball-winning outlet that he and the Cork attack are often accused of lacking, while firing over four points.

Alan Cadogan, who hadn’t played a championship match in 22 months after injury, came on here as if he’d never been away.

Aidan Walsh, making his first championship hurling start in three years, showed he didn’t come back to be a whipping boy but a wrecking ball.

Patrick Horgan had his roughest day on the frees since the 2016 Munster club final against Ballyea — yet one of his finest ever days, responding with some terrific points even before smacking home a goal that ultimately gave Cork some real and proper separation from Limerick.

Daniel Kearney’s heart or industry has never been doubted, but yesterday he gave the most rounded display of his career, trumping even anything he offered last year when he was as close as you can be to an All Star without actually winning one.

And so John Meyler’s obits were a bit premature, just like Limerick’s ascension out of Munster once more. In this province there are no certainties.

Suddenly playing away seems to be the new home; while last year only one team lost at home — Tipp, to Clare — so far this year only team has won at home — Tipp, to Waterford yesterday.

Last year we thought Tipp with their pedigree and run to the league final were the one certainty to get out of the group. They didn’t.

This year we thought Limerick were bound to finish in the top three. They might not.

You still suspect that they will. That Tipp team of 2018 was a tired one, every response of theirs last summer, a desperate squeeze. Limerick are only in year three of the Kiely project. There’s much more in them.

But where are their two wins going to come from? Waterford in Waterford? Against Clare in a local derby? 

Against Tipp, even if Liam Sheedy’s team will probably be through to the All Ireland series and even Munster final by then? Think they’ll refuse the chance to kill off and put out the 2018 champions?

Limerick are now the hunted. But Kiely knows that if they’re to survive, they’ve got to get back to being the hunters.

GAA podcast: Dalo was wrong. Emotional Cork. Limerick's Plan B? Tipp back it up. Ref justice

Anthony Daly, Ger Cunningham and TJ Ryan review the weekend's hurling.

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