Cork finally see the light

IF Conor Counihan wanted a rigorous test to discover where his Cork team stand ahead of the big August days in Croke Park, he got it in the Gaelic Grounds on Saturday night.

This was an All-Ireland SFC Qualifier Round 4 encounter that Cork were the proprietors of in the fading daylight in normal-time. Yet they wilted in the face of a thunderous late Limerick rally and it was only under the powerful glow of the floodlights on the Ennis Road that they finally fashioned a victory in extra-time.

Securing a last eight berth was the pre-requisite for this trip but it was a serious test of both mind and body for Cork before they achieved that ambition.

This was a physically gruelling evening where the final whistle was blown two hours and 13 minutes after the first, and a Cork team shorn of injury victims John Miskella and Alan O’Connor at the start, were plagued with cramp at the finish. That could impinge on their ability to peak next week but at least they are still standing.

Limerick in contrast walked away empty-handed again from a collision with Munster football’s Old Firm despite their dogged persistence and constant energy.

When Alan O’Connor, a second half sub, popped over a 65th minute point, it looked like he had rounded off Cork’s success as they sailed five points clear. A tremendous free by Ger Collins for Limerick seemed a mere footnote to the game, yet two minutes later he was entrusted with a penalty after O’Connor barged into the back of John Galvin in the square. Referee Pádraig Hughes had earlier failed to award a first-half penalty when Galvin looked to be hauled down, but this time Collins fired a splendid shot to the net and a cacophony of cheers erupted from the home support. Alan Quirke’s resultant kickout was intercepted by Galvin who ferried the ball to Conor Fitzgerald and he claimed the levelling point.

At that stage the impetus lay with Limerick and they emerged for extra-time visibly buoyant. But ultimately Cork weathered that storm. They found scores easier to come by in extra-time, retained their own possession and disrupted Limerick’s play more effectively. At a time when they could have buckled under the pressure, Cork drew on their big game nous to get out of the Gaelic Grounds alive.

Overall Cork’s display was laced with imperfections. Their start to the game was lethargic and that was reflected as they trailed 0-3 to 0-0 by the 13th minute, a deficit that could have been greater but for Sean Buckley’s 11th minute blast smacking off the crossbar.

During those early stages Cork were grateful to the excellence of Derek Kavanagh, starting his first game since the 2008 All-Ireland semi-final replay, who powered the team on from midfield and swung over a lovely point in the 14th minute.

Cork’s attack never threatened to cut loose and the frequent repositioning of their forwards seemed to prevent them from forming cohesive play. Colm O’Neill showed flashes of menace in stealing two first-half points and Daniel Goulding’s freetaking was consistently accurate. But Limerick’s defence led by immense displays from Johnny McCarthy and Stephen Lavin largely stifled Cork’s offensive unit. Cork once more failed to strike a goal although O’Neill did draw a fabulous reflex save from Brian Scanlon in the 23rd minute.

Elsewhere around the pitch there was good news for Cork. Their defence maintained the high standards of recent weeks and it was this sector that baled Cork out of trouble. The full-back line of Ray Carey, Michael Shields and Jamie O’Sullivan were superbly efficient in their work, and apart from Collins early sparkle, the Limerick attack were well contained. As the match wore on the influence of Cork’s elder statesmen came to the fore with Graham Canty, Nicholas Murphy and Pearse O’Neill finishing in flying form as they imposed their physicality on proceedings.

Cork utilised their bench with the fresh legs of Patrick Kelly and Paul Kerrigan crucial upon their re-introduction in extra-time.

Limerick did not scale the heights they reached in the Munster final against Kerry with their failings in front of goal haunting them. Collins knocked a bad wide in the 76th minute at a vital juncture and the 22-minute scoring drought in the second-half of normal time was also costly. They found Cork’s rearguard impenetrable and their totemic midfield duo John Galvin and Jim O’Donovan never exerted their customary levels of dominance. For heart and determination Limerick were first-class but ultimately this was another addition to their long list of heroic failures. The future of some long-serving players and their management is now shrouded in uncertainty.

Cork stumbled rather than sprinted over the finishing line here. But this type of examination should be beneficial and Cork needed to triumph in a grim battle rather than win at a canter. There are vivid examples in the past two years of the All-Ireland champions Tyrone and Kerry muddling their way through the qualifiers before shimmering with splendour when the action shifts to Croke Park.

CORK: A Quirke; R Carey, M Shields, J O’Sullivan; G Canty, N O’Leary, P Kissane; D Kavanagh (0-1), A Walsh (0-1); C Sheehan (0-1), P Kelly (0-1), P O’Neill; C O’Neill (0-2), P Kerrigan, D Goulding (0-7, 0-5f).

Subs: N Murphy for Walsh, D O’Connor (0-2, 0-1f) for Kerrigan (both 49), A O’Connor (0-1) for Kavanagh (58), F Goold for Kelly (70), Kelly for Goold (start of extra time), E Cotter for Shields (75, injured), Kerrigan for Sheehan (87, injured), Goold for A O’Connor (90).

LIMERICK: B Scanlon (0-1f); M O’Riordan, J McCarthy, A Lane; S Lucey, S Lavin (0-2), P Ranahan; J O’Donovan, J Galvin; P Browne, I Ryan (0-1f), S Buckley; G Collins (1-4, 1-0 penalty, 0-2f), S Kelly (0-1), J Ryan (0-1).

Subs: S Gallagher for McCarthy (blood, 23-25), C Mullane for O’Riordan (41), E Joy for Browne (43), C Fitzgerald (0-1) for Buckley (52), Gallagher for Lucey (62, injured), E O’Connor for I Ryan (66), J Mullane for O’Donovan (blood, 68-69), Browne for Ranahan (start of extra time), Buckley for Joy (74), I Ryan for O’Connor (80), J Mullane for Collins (84).

Referee: P Hughes (Armagh).

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