A roar of celebration, yes, but also a roar of relief, an end to 17 years of crushing frustration in Munster. Ciarán Carey was the last Limerick captain to lift the same trophy, back in 1996, the year of his famous point against Clare in the semi-final. This one has been a long time coming and despite the fact Cork played the entire second half with just 14 men, boy was it convincing!
A tremor surely ran through hurling also because — whisper it — the winds of change are starting to blow. Kilkenny, Tipperary, Galway and Cork have been forced to take the low road as Limerick and Dublin, both of whom operating in Division 1B this year, are the new provincial champions. Who would have forecast that at the start of this electric hurling season?
It was another epic Munster final occasion with 42,730 fans crammed into one of the great hurling venues on another sweltering afternoon. Unfortunately it wasn’t an epic contest, nor yet epic hurling.
An incident in the final seconds of the first half saw to the former. Cork free-taker and star inside-forward Patrick Horgan red-carded for a careless swing that made contact — albeit light — with the helmet of Paudie O’Brien. Unfortunately for Patrick the dropping ball made simultaneous contact with Paudie’s face leaving the Kilmallock-man prone on the deck. Referee James McGrath initially looked like he was going to do nothing about the incident but then went straight for red.
Technically correct but oh-so-harsh. With the game tied at 0-10 each at the break and now facing into the wind, it left Cork with a mountain to climb in the second half.
Mind you that needn’t have been the case and wouldn’t have been the case had the Rebels capitalised on all the opportunities they created in a dominant opening period. It wasn’t just the strong breeze at their backs, though that was a factor, Cork were hurling with far more authority than a nervous-looking home side in that period but hit 10 wides and spurned two good goal-scoring chances.
Team captain Pa Cronin led the way for the visitors, as he did all game with two excellent points; Horgan had four (three frees) and was looking very sharp in the left corner while Seamus Harnedy was having another strong outing with two valuable points from the edge of the square.
Limerick meanwhile were relying on free-taker Declan Hannon (five points, four frees) to do most of their scoring though flying corner-forwards Graeme Mulcahy and Seanie Tobin chipped in with a point apiece, powerhouse centre-forward James Ryan, a popular choice as man of the match, with another.
Oh but the wides for Cork. All six forwards off target at one stage or another with missed opportunities they would come to rue.
Even in the absence of Horgan, for 25 minutes of the second half Cork still managed to almost keep pace with Limerick. It was a time for heroic defence and up stepped Stephen McDonnell, Shane O’Neill and Conor O’Sullivan in the full-back line with wing-backs Tom Kenny and William Egan also doing well.
None was more prominent for Cork in this period though than captain Cronin. Through sheer force of will he dragged Cork back into the game, only two points behind in the 59th minute (0-17 to 0-15).
On this day, however, Limerick were not going to be denied. Half-back trio Paudie O’Brien, Wayne McNamara and Gavin O’Mahony threw up the first wall of defence; Stephen Walsh, Richie McCarthy, outstanding again, and Tom Condon closed up shop behind with keeper Nickie Quaid organising everything. Midfielders Paul Browne and captain Donal O’Grady took command and the Limerick points began to flow.
Seven in a row they notched to close out a glorious win, subs Shane Dowling (three), Kevin Downes (two) and their former teacher at Árdscoil Rís Niall Moran (one) to the fore. It leaves manager John Allen with a selection dilemma for the All-Ireland semi-final but what a delicious dilemma to have!
Scorers for Limerick: D Hannon (0-8, 5 frees, 1 s/l), J Ryan, S Dowling (0-3 each), G Mulcahy, S Tobin, K Downes (0-2 each), P O’Brien, P Browne, S Hickey, N Moran (0-1 each).
Scorers for Cork: P Horgan (0-4, 2 frees), S Harnedy, P Cronin (0-3 each), J Coughlan (0-2 frees), L O’Farrell, D Kearney, C Naughton (0-1 each).
LIMERICK: N Quaid; S Walsh, R McCarthy, T Condon; P O’Brien, W McNamara, G O’Mahony; P Browne, D O’Grady (c); D Breen, J Ryan, S Hickey; G Mulcahy, D Hannon, S Tobin.
Subs for Limerick: S Dowling for Breen (46), C Allis for Mulcahy (52), C King for O’Brien (inj. 58), K Downes for Tobin (65), N Moran for Hickey (69).
CORK: A Nash; S O’Neill, S McDonnell, C O’Sullivan; T Kenny, L McLoughlin, W Egan; C Joyce, D Kearney; C Lehane, C McCarthy, P Cronin (c); L O’Farrell, P Horgan, S Harnedy.
Subs for Cork: J Coughlan for McCarthy (35), C Naughton for Lehane (41), M Cussen for O’Farrell (59), S White for McLoughlin (59).
Referee: J McGrath (Westmeath).