Kerry 1-19 Cork 3-10
A track record like Cork’s going into this Championship fixture on Saturday evening can have a distorting effect: no win for seven years, an average losing margin of more than 11 points since the outlying draw of 2015 and the mausoleum echo of a scantily occupied brand-new Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
Against that backdrop what happened felt like a revolution. Ronan McCarthy said afterwards that they had gone out to compete, not limit the damage, and Cork delivered on that feisty manifesto even if Kerry won a seventh successive Munster title and their 81st in total.
It was a high-wire act by the challengers. They didn’t opt for a sweeper or packed defence – or at times any defence – but competed lustily for the most part, an enthusiasm reflected in the free count, which at 11-27 against them couldn’t be entirely apportioned to the home crowd’s dissatisfaction with referee Anthony Walsh’s determinations.
Led by Ian Maguire, they had a far better afternoon at centrefield than the previous year when their own kickout was dismantled, at worst breaking even overall and at best clearly edging the battle which Maguire and Killian O'Hanlon took to David Moran and Jack Barry in the middle.
Using the platform both to run at Kerry and delver well-judged ball into Brian Hurley and Mark Collins, which at times created consternation in the Kerry full-back line, Cork were a different proposition.
Yet it’s as well to remember that Kerry actually won. Their livewire movement in the early stages created leeway on the scoreboard that their opposition had to chase for virtually the entire match. They will, nonetheless, be mindful of the inroads made through their defence and the type of tariff that other teams might have imposed.
Class up front
The pace of the champions’ counter-attacks opened vast tracts of land in Cork’s defence, and crucially, when damage needed to be done they had the class up front to do it.
Wing back Tom O’Sullivan was a frequent thorn in the flank of the defence, and popped up in the sixth minute to thrust home a goal after Seán O’Shea’s initial incision.
No wides in the first half and only four in the second illustrates the difference between the teams. O'Shea produced another clinical dead-ball display – missing just once – but if he was largely counter-balanced by Collins for Cork, Kerry also had David Clifford and Stephen O' Brien, who could influence and finish attacks when the match was on the line.
All seven of Kerry's forwards, including replacement Micheál Burns, scored points from play; of Cork's attack only Collins did the same – allowing that Hurley and Luke Connolly also scored goals but in terms of the sniper's ability to pick off scores consistently, the champions held the upper hand.
The first half showcased this. Cork’s only score from play in a 1-4 total was Connolly’s 20th-minute goal, palmed in after Maguire had won a throw-in ball and popped it on to the excellent Ruairí Deane, whose rampaging runs caused frequent problems for Kerry. He set it up for the incoming Connolly to palm home.
Attacking disparity was also detectable in Cork’s squandering three good goal chances for Deane, Collins and Seán White. Kerry led by a comfortable six, 1-10 to 1-4 at the break.
Further inroads into that lead were made on the restart. O'Hanlon's driving run was halted by a Tadhg Morley rugby tackle, and Connolly expertly converted the 38th-minute penalty.
Cork had momentum and 10 minutes later Maguire’s shot was deflected so that it dropped on the square and Hurley, despite the attentions of goalkeeper and defender, got a touch to level the match at 3-6 to 1-12.
Again though, the difference between the team’s clinical levels was evident. Cork couldn’t find the composure to go ahead, whereas Kerry cleverly engineered opportunities and, more importantly, took them.
They also had to manage without All-Star attacker Paul Geaney, who was sent off when his 55th-minute black card for a late challenge on corner back Kevin Flahive combined with an earlier yellow to push him into the red.
This was immediately followed by a point from Cork full back James Loughrey – showing the adventure that characterised his contribution as a wing back during Antrim's run to the Ulster final 10 years ago – to cut the margin to a point, 3-7 to 1-14.
O’Brien stepped in, however, to stop the rot and kicked the next two points within four minutes to restore a one-goal lead, 1-16 to 3-7.
Cork battled to the end, but couldn’t close the gap again. They head for the qualifiers with more purpose than at any stage in recent years.
Kerry are the first team into the quarter-final round robin, but Peter Keane and his management have an extensive snag list.
KERRY: 1 S Ryan; 5 P Murphy, 3 T Morley, 2 J Foley; 7 G White (capt), 6 J Sherwood, 4 T O'Sullivan (1-1); 8 D Moran, 9 J Barry; 10 D O'Connor (0-1), 11 S O'Shea (0-8, six frees), 12 S O'Brien (0-2); 13 D Clifford (0-4, one free), 14 P Geaney (0-1), 15 D Moynihan (0-1).
Subs: 17 G Crowley for Foley (43 mins), 23 M Burns (0-1) for Moynihan (50), 18 A Spillane for Barry (53), 22 B Ó Beaglaíoch for O'Connor (66), 19 M Griffin for O'Sullivan (68).
CORK: 1 M White; 2 N Walsh, 3 J Loughrey (0-1), 4 K Flahive; 5 L O'Donovan, 22 T Clancy, 7 M Taylor; 8 I Maguire, 9 K O'Hanlon; 10 P Kerrigan, 6 S White (0-1), 11 R Deane; 13 M Collins (0-8, six frees), 14 B Hurley (1-0), 26 L Connolly (2-0, one penalty).
Subs: 17 K O'Donovan for Walsh (35 mins), 12 K O'Driscoll for S White (59), 25 M Hurley for B Hurley (59), 15 S Sherlock for Connolly (66), 19 A Browne for Taylor (68), 20 S Cronin for Loughrey (69).
Referee: Anthony Nolan (Wicklow).