Tone deaf Limerick are suddenly entering all time conversations

The distance between the champions and the rest has never looked as daunting

Limerick’s Barry Nash and Sean Finn celebrate at the final whistle. Photograph: Tom Honan

Limerick’s Barry Nash and Sean Finn celebrate at the final whistle. Photograph: Tom Honan

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The genie is out of the bottle. The emerald green of Limerick hurling has never burned as brightly as it does right now.

As the 2021 All-Ireland hurling final meandered to an inevitable closure, the atmosphere in the famous stadium was redolent of the seasons when Kilkenny left all others playing for second. The distance between the back-to-back champions and the rest has never looked as daunting.

Limerick had 16 points to spare against a young Cork team that was, in the honest summation of Kieran Kingston, simply “outgunned, out-everything.” It finished 3-32 to 1-22 and had Limerick been meaner in their conversion rate - they clipped 18 wides - they could have finished the day with a truly shocking total.

“It was a great performance,” said John Kiely afterwards. The elation of his maiden win in 2018 was replaced here by a deep satisfaction. “We were building towards it over the last couple of months.

“We got things right from the start. Got the energy levels right and put pressure on Cork ball coming out of defence. And when we had the ball ourselves we used it really well. We got into a flow and when you get into that state it is very hard to stop.”

No. It is completely unstoppable. No other team can live with them right now. Here was a total performance for 35 minutes, when they outscored Cork by 3-18 to 1-11. Thirteen different scorers.

One of the few Limerick men not to raise a flag was Kyle Hayes. But he already has the goal of the year if not the young century. The odd thing was that for all the dark magic of Cian Lynch’s playmaking, and the imperious movement and creativity of their inside line, and the free-scoring nature of their first half blitz, we got to see the true heart of Limerick when they didn’t have the ball.

They wear their work ethic as though it is the county crest. They were unstinting in their want.

Limerick fans celebrate in the final minutes of the game at Croke Park. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Limerick fans celebrate in the final minutes of the game at Croke Park. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

What could Cork do? Whatever dreams they entertained on their way to the capital were crowded into the first quarter of the game. The sharp knowledge and dogs-on-the-street talk held that Cork would need goals to profit here and plenty of ‘em. In the fourth minute, with his first sight of open ground in front of him, Shane Kingston took off on a blurry arc around Sean Finn as, in the stands, a murmur of anticipation quickly bloomed into a yell.

Kingston was going for it. The finish, on the run and a narrowing angle, was clean and emphatic. But the audacity of intent was as important as the goal. It revealed Cork’s mindset: bold and receptive to half-chances and willing to create something out of nothing. It sent out a clear message to the champions.

Tone deaf

The problem is that this Limerick team is tone deaf when it comes to the persuasions of other teams. They weren’t listening in the Mediterranean heat of the Munster final when Tipperary hit them with what proved to be the last great aria of the Liam Sheedy regime. And they weren’t listening here. They responded to Kingston’s early goal with three crisp points and reclaimed their iron grip.

Within 10 minutes , they had imposed their desired shape and rhythm on the game, inviting Cork goalkeeper Patrick Collins to find one of the Cork fullback line with his puck outs and then hunting down the receiver with a hunger and aggression which quickly forced Cork to rush and to spill ball and to just try and get rid of the thing.

Time after time, young Rob Downey or Tim O’Mahony or Niall O’Leary would evade one green jersey only to find himself wandering into a dark forest of converging Limerick men. It was pure work-rate and physical intent from the champions so that every challenge became a lunch-money-at-the-school-playground racket. It didn’t look fair. Cork had no answer.

“They are an exceptional team,” said Kieran Kingston. “There is no team that would win what they have won in the last four or five years if they weren’t an exceptional team. It is not possible. They were a puck of a ball from four in a row and three Munsters and two national leagues. We have to acknowledge that.

“They are really well managed. The way they conduct themselves after a win off the field is as good they are on the field. They play with an edge. They are physical. They are huge men. They are really good hurlers. They are well coached. And they are a humble bunch too, having met them outside. Sometimes you have to take your hat off and say well done. We were beaten by the better team. And that is life. It’s not nice!”

In the long term, this may be a valuable experience for the young Cork team. But what a demoralising afternoon for an attractive team. Seamus Harnedy landed some good scores through the blizzard and Pat Horgan kept the score ticking from frees. But their final got away from them early.

Limerick just eased away from them, plundering three goals over the first half hour and punishing each Cork error with rigorous intent. The half-time scoreboard felt like a rebuke to anyone who had entertained reasons why they could be beaten: 3-18, with 3-16 from play. It was a stark indication of the gulf between Limerick and the rest.

Standing on the RTÉ broadcast podium, Henry Shefflin noted that as a first half performance, it was without comparison - before half recalling that his old team had soared to similar heights back in 2008. The Ballyhale maestro was lost in admiration but like many hurling people was probably silently computing the ramifications of this.

Limerick are suddenly entering all time conversations. The old heartbreaks and mishaps and squandered youth are just that: folk tales. They’ve become the empire.

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