With their seniors having failed to win a single championship match and their minors not reaching a Munster final for the first time since 2012, there was considerable pressure on Pat Donnelly’s U21 troops to deliver a positive result and lift the gloom surrounding Limerick hurling.
Much has been made — and rightly so — of the work being done in the county’s underage academy and, with this particular group having made an All-Ireland minor final three years ago, evidence of their progression could only be provided by capturing the silverware on offer. In front of 11,774, they duly obliged, even if the performance — the winners failed to score between the 39th and 57th minute — was well below what they served up in reaching the decider.
In front by 0-11 to 1-4 at the break, Limerick had the elements in their face for the second period, but conjured up the ideal start through a pair of Aaron Gillane frees. This stretched their lead out to six and kept considerable distance between themselves and a Cork team who were without a focal point in attack, as Declan Dalton and Shane Kingston (second-half) were well curtailed.
Barry Nash’s second, to leave the favourites 0-14 to 1-5 in front, was their final score before the aforementioned barren period, the Rebels subsequently landing four without reply to pare the margin back to two points. Crucially, though, only one of this brace arrived from open play, that a Michael O’Halloran effort. It summed up Cork’s struggles in the second half of the pitch.
At the other end, the hosts registered miss after miss, with their final wides tally coming in at 12. Gillane’s fifth free broke the rot and his sixth, following a foul on sub Conor Boylan, sealed the county’s eighth Munster title at U21 level. Indeed, half of this haul has been collected at Cork’s expense.
The Rebels, who are 10 years without a Munster U21 final win and were chasing a grand slam of provincial silverware for the first time since 2005, missed senior pair Darragh Fitzgibbon and Luke Meade. Fitzgibbon’s absence, in particular, was sorely felt, as the visitors were never allowed assert themselves in midfield.
Having taken Tipperary for 1-4 without reply during the opening nine minutes of their Munster quarter-final and having put 1-10 past Clare within 15 minutes of their semi-final meeting, there was a strong feeling of déjà vu here, as Limerick, backed by a strong wind, ripped Cork apart during the opening quarter.
By 14 minutes, the home outfit had raced seven-points clear. Cork, by this juncture, had yet to raise a flag of any description.
Ronan Lynch set the tone with a long-range free inside 52 seconds, with Aaron Gillane adding a second placed-ball on three minutes. Half-back Thomas Grimes, Peter Casey and Gillane (free) followed up with three more in quick succession, the latter score stemming from a superb catch by Colin Ryan as he rose highest to collect a Mark Coleman delivery out of defence.
No other Cork player hurled as much ball as Coleman in the opening half, but he found most of his clearances being returned with interest, as Kyle Hayes swept to clinical effect at the other end. Mind you, Cork didn’t help themselves by putting a number of deliveries down on top of the spare Limerick defender. There was also soft turnovers conceded by Eoghan Murphy, Declan Dalton and Michael O’Halloran. The net result was that Tim O’Mahony, the sole Cork player stationed within 30 metres of the Limerick goal, was starved.
Treaty half-back pair Ronan Lynch (free) and Grimes completed their early scoring burst before Kingston got Cork off the mark after 15 minutes. Tim O’Mahony and Kingston further narrowed the deficit and, though both scores were subsequently cancelled out, the Rebels received a major shot in the arm when O’Mahony, with a one-handed strike, goaled four minutes from the break.
It proved a rare breach of the Treaty defence and that two points was the closest they came to Limerick at any time neatly captures an evening where John Meyler’s charges were constantly giving chase. In the end, they simply ran out of road.
Limerick’s journey, though, has a bit to run yet.
A Gillane (0-6, 0-6 frees); R Lynch (0-2 frees), B Nash, P Casey, T Grimes (0-2 each); T Morrissey, M Mackey (0-1 each).
T O’Mahony (1-1); S Kingston (0-3); D Dalton (0-2 frees), M Coleman (0-2 frees), M O’Halloran (0-2 each); R O’Flynn (0-1).
E McNamara (Doon); S Finn (Bruff), D Fanning (Pallasgreen), D Joy (Kilmallock); R Lynch (Na Piarsaigh), K Hayes (Kildimo/Pallaskenry), T Grimes (Na Piarsaigh); C Ryan (Pallasgreen), R Hanley (Kilmallock); A Gillane (Patrickswell), M Mackey (Adare), C Lynch (Patrickswell); B Nash (South Liberties), P Casey (Na Piarsaigh), T Morrissey (Ahane).
P Ahern (Killeedy) for Casey (43 mins); C Boylan (Na Piarsaigh) for Mackey (47); D O’Neill (Mayfield) for Lowney (56); B Murphy (Doon) for Morrissey (56); L Lyons (Monaleen) for Hanley (61).
P Collins (Ballinhassig); J Cashman (Blackrock), E Murphy (Sarsfields), D Griffin (Sarsfields); S O’Donoghue (Inniscarra); D Browne (Kanturk), M Coleman (Blarney); D Lowney (Clonakilty), P Leopold (Sarsfields); M O’Halloran (Blackrock), D Dalton (Fr O’Neill’s), S Kingston (Douglas); T O’Mahony (Newtownshandrum), R O’Flynn (Erin’s Own), C O’Leary (Valley Rovers).
J O’Connor (Sarsfields) for O’Leary (40); J Looney (Aghada) for O’Mahony, D O’Neill (Mayfield) for Lowney (both 57); C Cahalane (St Finbarr’s) for Cashman (61).
R McGann (Clare).