Cork 1-26 Limerick 1-19
Uh, oh! After a few ominous scraping noises, Limerick's unsinkable championship status hit the iceberg just at the end of the third quarter. A madcap attack on the Cork goal, launched by Cian Lynch and with the ball ricocheting all around the square, had just failed to run for them and the assault had been relieved by Mark Coleman nipping in to pluck a loose ball and hare off up the field.
Within seconds the ball was flying in beyond the Limerick cover for Patrick Horgan to advance on the other goal and flash it into the net for a 1-18 to 1-14 lead that prompted that sinking feeling, even for a team that had blitzed them in last year's All-Ireland semi-final to pull back a six-point deficit in virtually as many minutes.
But that was then and this was now.
Having torn through the league like a tornado, Limerick began the defence of last year’s All-Ireland in what looked the best of shape.
Any lingering doubts about the disadvantage of not having played on the first weekend of the championship and any consequent rustiness had been allayed by the crisis apparently afflicting visitors Cork, fresh from being dismantled by old rivals Tipperary.
The gap between the Munster champions and the All-Ireland champions looked simply too big.
Even Cork's attempts to fix things had raised eyebrows and not in a positive sense. Mark Ellis was hurried back into the team at centre back, having apparently become surplus to requirements. In the event, he provided a solid core for a defensive performance improved beyond recognition.
The previous week against Tipp, rookie corner back Niall O'Leary and veteran full back Eoin Cadogan had their moments tussling with John McGrath and Séamus Callanan. O'Leary was again impressive but Cadogan was immense, shackling Aaron Gillane, the Hurler of the League, and giving him no opportunity to go swooping all across the full-forward line in pursuit of perfectly-placed passes.
Another plus was the return from injury of Bill Cooper, which buttressed centrefield.
"Every time that Limerick got a score," said manager John Meyler, "we replied and we showed that resilience, that determination to push on unlike last Sunday. I have to give Bill Cooper for his great leadership on the field. He's a great leader, he's a great warrior. He epitomises everything about this team."
It didn't start well for Cork. In the act of scoring an acrobatic point in the fourth minute, Conor Lehane did himself a mischief (thought to be an ankle injury) and had to hobble off but Alan Cadogan's early arrival, having missed nearly a year's action, illustrated quickly the loss that he had been and was used in evidence by Meyler to show that the team's reserve depth – one of their most frequently referenced weaknesses – had improved.
Limerick lost by seven but factor in that the usually infallible Patrick Horgan chose the match to channel his inner wastrel by hitting seven wides, including six of 12 frees – to go with 1-3 from play, and the outcome was even more sobering.
There wasn't much in it in the first half. Limerick took the initiative and led for most of the opening 35 minutes, including by 1-11 to 0-12 at half-time. The key score was a goal, finished impressively by Graham Mulcahy after fielding a dropping ball almost to the end-line from Declan Hannon and driving it in from the tightest of angles to open a 1-8 to 0-8 lead.
Cork were within a whisker of responding but Nickie Quaid blocked Séamus Harnedy's shot in an echo of last year's epic All-Ireland semi-final between the teams.
Mulcahy wasn’t so much the brightest star in the sky for Limerick as the only one. His 1-3 in the first half was the bedrock of their advantage.
Cork remained well in the match. The reformed defence was giving a more robust account of itself than the previous week and six of the seven forwards – Aidan Walsh the exception but his physical presence was causing other problems – got on the scoreboard from play.
If the hope was that Limerick had rediscovered their sharpness in the first half and would kick on, the opening exchanges of the second indicated otherwise. They missed their first two chances whereas Alan Cadogan and Meade nailed Cork's to draw it level.
From there it seamlessly became a match that Cork were controlling. Gillane’s 46th-minute free was the last time Limerick led. The home bench was mobilised but the team had lost momentum and as the deficit grew to six, seven points all the frantic efforts at whipping long ball in on the opposition square yielded next to nothing.
Last year’s formidable platform, the half forwards, proved flimsy, labouring to pick up ball and alarmingly unable to command the approaches to goal with the physicality that marks the team at the top of its game.
At one point Kyle Hayes suffered the indignity of getting hooshed out over the side-line and the team's half backs were under similar pressure.
Limerick manager John Kiely sounded a defiant tone. "That dressing room is full of guys who are capable of grabbing this thing by the scruff of the neck and there will be a response. I have no doubt in my mind that these players will respond. They have worked so hard; they're so committed; they're so loyal; they're phenomenal guys.
“They know that they’ll have to double down on what they’re doing and they know that there will have to be a response. There’s no hiding place from this thing. It is what it is. We’ve lost our first game. We’re out the next day; we’re going to Walsh Park; we’ve got to get a result. Simple as.
"We won't qualify on four points. We'll need at least five. We've got a lot of work to do so first and foremost we need to get two points on the board and we have our next opportunity to do that below in Waterford. "
CORK: 1. A Nash; 2. S O'Donoghue, 3. E Cadogan, 4. N O'Leary; 7. M Coleman, 6. M Ellis, 5. R Downey; 8. B Cooper, 9. D Fitzgibbon (0-1); 12. L Meade (0-2), 11. S Harnedy (capt; 0-4),10. D Kearney (0-4); 13. C Lehane (0-1), 14. P Horgan (1-9, six points frees),15. A Walsh
Subs: 24. A Cadogan (0-3) for Lehane (6 mins), 17. S McDonnell for O’Donoghue (half-time), 20. C Joyce for Downey (53 mins), 23. S Kingston for Meade (61 mins), 25. D Dalton (0-2) for Walsh (68 mins).
LIMERICK: 1. N Quaid; 2. S Finn, 3. M Casey, 4. R English; 5. D Byrnes (0-2, frees), 6. D Hannon (capt.) , 7. D Morrissey; 8. C Lynch, 9. D O'Donovan; 12. T Morrissey (0-1), 11. K Hayes (0-1), 10. G Hegarty; 13. P Casey, 14. A Gillane (0-9, eight frees), 15. G Mulcahy (1-4).
Subs: 19. S Flanagan for P Casey (55 mins), 18. S Dowing (0-2, both frees) for Hegarty (65 mins), 21. B Murphy for Hegarty (61 mins), 23. W O’Donoghue for Gillane (61 mins), 17. D Dempsey for Gillane (66 mins).
Referee: P O'Dwyer (Carlow)