In one key respect, Limerick go into this All-Ireland final with an advantage. They have been here before. They know the terrain and they know how to navigate their way through it. Cork haven't been in an All-Ireland final in eight years. They can tell themselves they're getting ready for just another game but they won't be able to avoid the fact that this is different.
All-Ireland final week is like no other week in your life. There is nothing normal about it. All you want is for it to be 3.30pm on Sunday afternoon. You want nothing to change between now and then. You want every minute of every day to be exactly the same. But that’s not how life works. It’s impossible.
Your mind races in bed at night. You try to dodge as many people as possible in your day-to-day life. In work, in the shop, going for a coffee, getting petrol, at the butchers. You can’t get away from it, it’s relentless. And even if it isn’t relentless, your guard is up so high that it feels relentless.
Your phone is an open gate to anyone who wants to contact you for tickets or for hurling talk or just wish a general good luck. I found myself making sure my conversations got shorter - if they had to happen at all. Short, brief and to the point. I never left room or a gap for a “how ye fixed for Sunday” tangent.
I couldn’t abide loose talk so I tried to push my mind into a prison cell to avoid it all. You hold the key to who you want to let in and who you keep out. I found that keeping the head down is very important.
Long before Teresa Mannion ever became famous for it, I was living by an All-Ireland final week mantra that said: "Don't make unnecessary journeys." Walking into the supermarket pretending to be on the phone. Logging off social media by the Wednesday. Locking myself away from the world. Home is your safe house. Netflix is your best friend.
You can overdo it. I didn’t know it then but I can see it now. I remember before an All-Ireland in 2014 my mam and sister were shopping in town on the Saturday before the game. Kilkenny city has a buzz about it, it was like a carnival because of the game. Black and amber everywhere, all sorts of colours and flags and all the rest of it being sold on the streets. Everywhere was filled with chat and anticipation. Hurling is our religion.
My mam and sister were walking down the street when they were approached for a word from the local radio station KCLR who were out and about sampling the atmosphere. It was harmless chat - just stuff about being the family of a player before the game, about how the nerves were holding up, all that stuff. Small talk, really. Nothing to see here.
You wouldn’t have thought that by the way I reacted. I got wind of it through a text from a friend who had heard them on the radio. Well, I let them have it over a text message, both barrels. I was so tetchy the week of a match - and especially a final. I had been building myself up for three weeks for this game and I saw this as a complication that I didn’t need from them.
Which, of course, it wasn't. They hadn't said anything remotely out of place. I felt really bad the week after the game when I reflected on it, as I know my mam would be very low key and reserved. I could imagine her going into the credit union and being too polite to say no or offend anyone when asked for a brief word. But 24 hours out from war with Tipperary, I couldn't see it that way. My bad!
Most of the Cork lads will be living through all this for the first time this week. Even the small few who aren’t still haven’t experienced it since 2013. Limerick well know the drill at this stage. They know how to leave the sideshows to the supporters and how not to get distracted. It’s not the winning and losing of the game but it is an energy drain that they know how to avoid.
I see this final being decided in a couple of key areas. What Cork do about picking up Cian Lynch is the most obvious one. There are a handful of players in the country who absolutely need to be man-marked regardless of what else happens on the pitch and he is right up there with Tony Kelly in that regard. So a big part of Cork's build-up will be focused on dealing with him.
You can't allow Lynch to drift around without anyone shadowing him. If your plan is to pass him on to the next player across, he will think all his Christmases have come at once. A combined effort is too loose an arrangement for some like him because a yard is too much space to leave someone with a hand like Harry Potter. He could score or engineer 1-2 off his first four possessions and by then it's too late to send a man-marker out to him. The damage is done.
Price to pay
Cork would love to have Ger Millerick fit and able for a full 70-75 minutes. My sense of it is that it’s very doubtful he has had enough time to recover. Eoghan O’Donnell couldn’t do it in the two-week turnaround for Dublin earlier in the summer and it’s hard to imagine Mellerick can either.
If he's not there, what can Cork do? There has been talk of pushing Mark Coleman onto him but personally I think this would be too big a price to pay. Coleman is too important to the game Cork play coming out of defence. If you send him off after Lynch for the day, you take out a key building block of what has got you to the All-Ireland final. I don't think they will do that.
A leftfield move would be to draft Damien Cahalane back in as a man marker. But I think it's more likely that Luke Meade gets the job with Cahalane as a Plan B if it doesn't go well. This is slightly by process of elimination - I don't see Cork taking any of the others out of their usual role for the job. It's a huge assignment for Meade and it will be fascinating to see how he measures up.
Against Kilkenny, Cork were able to open up space and channels for their runners to exploit. This was particularly fruitful when they went at the Kilkenny half-back line the further the game went on - look at what havoc Shane Kingston and Jack O'Connor were able to wreak.
A lot of these spaces came from good possession retention in the Cork defence and a patient build-up. They watched for the space and waited for the runs of the Cork forwards to happen before pinging it to hand or into space to run onto. The Cork backs weren't afraid to go back to Patrick Collins if they did not like what they saw up the field.
There’s going to be a really interesting tactical battle in this area. Limerick are experts at setting traps in their forwards to tempt teams to run the ball out. One of their big ideas is to get a team running out with the ball so they can swallow them up and turn them over. But what happens when the opposition actually want to run the ball out and when they have planned it and drilled it and had lots of success doing it?
It’s one thing trying to trick the opposition into doing something they don’t want to, ie try to run the ball out of defence. But if they’re going to do it anyway - and if they’re actively good at it - how good are your traps going to be? The Cork defence uses lots of width, looking to create space for Coleman to float around picking up ball and then delivering it with pinpoint accuracy.
They might just be good enough at it to avoid the Limerick traps. And if they do, then the Limerick defenders suddenly have more on their plate than they’re used to. Will the Limerick half-back line be pulled all over the place in tracking the Cork runners? I doubt that. But those Cork runners are going to have to be matched somehow. It’s a problem Limerick haven’t come up against so far.
In a lot of ways, Limerick remind me of Kilkenny in the mid- to late-noughties. The success we had around those years made us feel bulletproof. It gave us huge self-esteem going into finals.
We had built up a serious level of confidence through our silverware. Most of all, we felt that if we were right, we could beat anyone. We would analyse the opposition and see what they did. But above all, we would trust that our gameplan would win out, seven days a week and twice on a Sunday.
Limerick have a distinct style of play. Nothing they do on Sunday will surprise any of us. They have a power game built on massive work-rate and energy levels. They have a deep lying half-forward line, they have excellent distribution levels from defence, they have a clinical full-forward line and they have a wizard in Lynch in the middle of it all. To a man, they are skilled stickmen.
So there’s no rabbit they will pull out of a hat here. Their Plan B, if it’s needed, will be to do Plan A better. Water breaks offer them a chance to break down the opposition, make subtle changes and go again. And a bench to call on if needed and keep them all grounded. They are strong, strong favourites and deservedly so.
Cork are coming. And, much as it pains the rest of us, Cork are Cork. When they come to Croke Park, they bring the lot. Colour, blood and bandages, Rebels, Rebels, Barry's Tea, calling everyone langers, Cyril Kavanagh and his sombrero, Jackie Lennox's chippers, all that stuff. They bring a swagger, genuine belief. That's admirable.
They are underdogs here but you can be certain that nobody in Cork is thinking it’s okay to go up to a final and lose. It’s a young team, yes. But this is an All-Ireland final. Go and win it and we’ll talk about what age you are afterwards. None of this lose-one-to-win-one carry-on. Nobody in Cork thinks like that.
I actually think it will bring them very, very close. And I think it will get them there eventually. But here and now, in 2021, Limerick have too much and they will complete their two-in-a-row.