THIS TIME THERE was to be no captivating comeback, no demonstration of Limerick’s powers of hurling recovery.
Last June Kyle Hayes launched over the point that ensured they bagged a draw against Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
Then when the sides crossed paths again last July in Croke Park, Limerick trailed by six points in the 61st minute but chiselled out a draw and got the job done in extra-time.
By August they were celebrating a long-awaited Liam MacCarthy Cup breakthrough and yesterday, exactly nine months on from Limerick’s day of hurling deliverance, they gathered in hope and in anticipation as a new championship adventure began.
There were 31,274 fans gathered at the Gaelic Grounds, the bulk of the crowd of a Limerick persuasion as they eagerly awaited a first summer sighting of their team.
Cork were familiar opponents but they were not in a mood for squandering another second-half advantage. Daniel Kearney floated over a 47th minute point that pushed Cork ahead 0-17 to 1-13 and Limerick would never draw level again or look like staging a comeback. They were outscored for the remainder of the game 1-9 to 0-6 and by the final whistle there was no rise to acclaim the title holders. On the first day out, Limerick fell flat.
They haven’t missed a step in their conduct on or off the pitch since that All-Ireland final win over Galway, the winter celebrations cherished around their county and the spring witnessing a continuation of their powerful form as they ended a 22-year wait for league glory.
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But yesterday Limerick hit a roadblock. They were defeated by Cork in the league in February yet this felt and looked different, their most lethargic display since the 11-point loss to Clare in Ennis last June.
Limerick’s case for favouritism was hardened by the fact that Cork had been severely wounded by their reversal last Sunday against Tipperary. They seemed set on penning the tale of a strong start to summer 2019 when Graeme Mulcahy, one of their brightest sparks last year, crashed home the opening goal of the game in the 27th minute and while Limerick were in front by two at the interval, they never kicked on thereafter.
Graeme Mulcahy gets a super goal for @LimerickCLG from a tight angle! pic.twitter.com/EPqonuFFMA
— The GAA (@officialgaa) May 19, 2019
Limerick’s overall scoring return was striking. They only managed 1-7 from play and just 0-2 of that tally arrived in the second half. It spoke to Cork’s aggressive style of defending, there was a clear intent to halt the surging runs of Cian Lynch for instance. Cork seemed happy to cough up frees in order to protect Anthony Nash’s goal yet their defending also frustrated a Limerick team who could not unlock that rearguard in open play.
Four of Limerick’s forwards were withdrawn before the end, Graeme Mulcahy bagged 1-4 and was the exception to a trend of their attackers enduring quiet afternoons. When Limerick took down Cork in the extra-time epic last July, the 2-6 supplied by their substitutes was rightly held up as a central component of their victory. Shane Dowling, 0-2 from placed balls, was their only substitute to score yesterday. John Kiely shuffled his pack but it could not alter the flow of the game.
It’s also salient to look at the period after the break. Limerick emerged and created early second-half scoring chances but Peter Casey and Tom Morrissey hit uncharacteristic wides. In comparison Cork reeled off six points between the 38th and 48th minutes, Limerick only grabbed 0-2 in that time frame and a gap was created that they could never bridge.
The perception was that Cork would be hampered by that loss to Tipperary but John Meyler argued afterwards that the game served them well in highlighting the flaws they needed to correct. He made a bunch of personnel changes to achieve that and clearly Cork were able to zone in on areas to improve. Their cause was also greater, another Munster defeat would have left their season in jeopardy as they entered a three-week hiatus before facing Waterford on 8 June.
Did those elements affect Limerick’s preparation? It was seven weeks since their last encounter and they ultimately coasted to victory that day in the league decider against Waterford. They did enter the game cold unlike Cork and with three games left to play, perhaps the provision of a greater safety net did influence their desire.
Cork’s Aidan Walsh and Shane Kingston with Limerick’s Richie English and Dan Morrissey.
Source: James Crombie/INPHO
It’s the first genuine setback in the defence of their national crown, not that such scenarios facing champions are a rare occurrence. In 2016 Kilkenny (against Waterford) and in 2018 Galway (against Kilkenny and Clare) underwent huge tests in matches that finished in draws before they prevailed in replays. On both occasions they fell short on All-Ireland final day but they had found a route back to that showpiece.
Clare (2014) and Tipperary (2017) were both taken down in their opening assignments after the euphoria they had experienced the previous September. Clare’s season would unravel further as they exited in mid-July, Tipperary managed to get it together sufficiently to reach the last four where they bowed out.
The round-robin structure does provide Limerick with a chance to make amends in Munster unlike the high stakes knockout system of old. Three games in 15 days in June may sound gruelling but a two-week break before that schedule kicks in seems likely to be of great value.
It’s now a test of their setup – players and management – to rebound from their ‘dip in performance’ as John Kiely described it.
Limerick are the latest to discover how much of a target teams become after they have climbed the steps of the Hogan Stand at the close of a season.
And it’s not like they don’t have form in recovering from lacklustre showings. Yesterday was redolent of that Clare game last June and consider their output thereafter. Wins over Carlow, Kilkenny, Cork and Galway saw them top of the pile at the end of 2018.
Walsh Park on the June Bank Holiday weekend will be targeted as the beginning of the recovery mission.
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