Cork had beaten Limerick by ten points in the opening round three months earlier and, while they looked to have got a run on us after half-time, Cork couldn’t put us away. Limerick halted their momentum, got ahead, and drove hard for the line.
There was nothing in it. The sides were level three times in a ten-minute spell after the break before the Limerick goalkeeper and captain Eoghan McNamara gave us the lead for the first time with a point from a long range free.
We missed a penalty before Tommy Grimes pushed Limerick further ahead with four minutes left. Cork were still alive but Peter Casey finally ended the contest with a superbly taken goal. And that lethal rapier thrust ripped straight through Cork’s heart.
Turning around a ten-point deficit into a three-point win added a couple of large sugar lumps to the taste but Cork left Limerick that evening with a horrible taste in their mouths.
They hit 15 wides to Limerick’s four. They were without their best player – Shane Kingston – but Cork still should have beaten us.
The lack of belief from Cork underage teams at that time was palpable and, despite their earlier result against us, we felt that if we put them under pressure that they might crack. It was purely down to belief because that team was teeming with talent. Tipperary beat us in the Munster final ten days later. Galway subsequently beat us in the All-Ireland quarter-final before going on to defeat Tipperary in the All-Ireland final.
But in my opinion, Cork were definitely the best team we had met all season.
It wasn’t just a lack of belief from the players though, because the management lacked conviction too. Denis Ring seemed spooked by the loss of Kingston and he played Mark Coleman as a sweeper, a decision which kept us in the game.
They had so much possession and chances that if they had really gone for broke that Cork had have been too far ahead of us before Caso sprinkled his magic.
It was obvious that night that Cork had some serious talent, even without Kingston, who had racked us with 1-9 in the opening round. Coleman and Darragh Fitzgibbon were brilliant while Seamie Flanagan couldn’t get any change out of David Griffin at full-back.
When I watched Cork dismantle Wexford and Tipperary in their last two matches of this season’s U21 championship, I was struck by how many players they still have from that minor team. On the other hand, it was noticeable how few players Tipperary have from their 2015 minor team, and how many they have from the 2016 team, which defeated Limerick in the All-Ireland final.
The U21 grade can be funny that way, in that young guys can step up and pass out older guys, but it’s even more pronounced now with the advanced strength and conditioning culture .
This is definitely a younger Tipperary team but there was more than just a gulf in physique and power in the Munster final because Cork also blew them away with their class, skill and firepower.
Denis Ring has done a great job with this group. I don’t know the man but Brian Foley, who was involved alongside me with those two minor teams, taught under Denis. Brian always spoke so highly of him that I almost feel that I know Denis.
I would know Liam Cahill that bit better from having come up against him more often. He’s cool and calm and has built up an impressive CV with this group. This is his third All-Ireland final in four years but this is definitely his biggest test.
It could be argued that tomorrow’s All-Ireland final is perfectly set up for Cahill and his players. We were in the same position with Limerick for the 2016 All-Ireland minor final. Tipp had annihilated us in the Munster final but we came through the backdoor and had built up good momentum entering the final. There was no pressure on us and, while Tipp beat us again, we rattled the hell out of them. And nearly beat them.
I’m sure Cahill will be singing the same tune that we were before that final. And asking the same hard questions. ‘Hi, are ye going to run from them again? Are ye going to front up now and show what yere made off? Are ye going to make a stand with a Tipperary jersey on yere backs?’ I’m sure Tipp will but Cork will also know what’s coming, and I’d be pretty convinced that they’ll be ready for whatever Tipp throw at them.
Coleman, Fitzgibbon and Kingston have already lost two All-Ireland senior semi-finals. Tim O’Mahony and Robbie O’Flynn also still have that bitter aftertaste in their mouths from the defeat to Limerick last month. And I’m sure that sensation is even more sickening after watching Limerick win the Liam MacCarthy last Sunday.
This Cork side know all about hurt. Unlike Tipperary, they never won anything up along through the grades prior to the Munster U21 final.
A raft of the players were on the minor side beaten by Galway in last year’s All-Ireland final. They were fancied to win that match so they are also fully aware of the perils of facing into an All-Ireland final as favourites.
Cork are the better team. They showed as much in the Munster final and they’ll certainly want to prove it now again tomorrow.
It is a tricky test but all of these players now are more than set up to pass it. And so is their manager.
Three years ago, Cork looked to have the best minor team in the country but all of their ambitions perished at the hands of Caso’s assassin strike.
But by tomorrow evening, there should be absolutely no doubt that this Cork U21 team are the best in the land.