GAA Championship, Week Nine: Luimneach Abu – Limerick Forever?

by | Aug 27, 2021

Last week, as I anticipated Sunday’s All-Ireland Hurling Final, I found myself imagining Limerick overwhelming Cork in the first half as they had Tipperary in the Munster final’s second half. And because my imagination is, if nothing else, detailed, I’d even imagined a half-time score, Limerick 3-16 Cork 0-11.

The real-life half-time score? Limerick 3-18 Cork 1-11. And as the teams left the pitch, I was applauding the telly, with half a notion of chucking in a standing ovation…at home. That Munster final second half was the best half many hurling observers had ever observed. This…was…better, the live coverage resembling a highlights reel.

In Sunday’s second half, Limerick scored 0-14, one short of their scoring rate in the 2020 final, when they were “utterly dominant” (Irish Times), “sensational” (RTE) and “close to the best version of themselves” (Irish Examiner). Yet it felt anti-climactic. THAT was how complete a performance their first-half was. From man-of-the-match Cian Lynch’s point 13 seconds after throw-in to corner-back Barry Nash’s point, three seconds from half-time. And all points…and goals, in-between.

Only the joy of the Limerick fans among the 40,000 fans allowed inside Croke Park (and the noise of numerous Cork fans leaving early, to “avoid the traffic,” of course), drowned out the noise of scoring records being smashed. Limerick’s 3-32 is the biggest score EVER in an All-Ireland final, beating Kilkenny’s 3-30 in 2008 and Cork’s 6-21 in 1970, the latter in an 80-minute final rather than Sunday’s seventy. And, as RTE pundit Brendan Cummins noted on the ‘Sunday Game’ highlights show, their half-time 3-18 would have won 109 of the previous 139 All-Ireland finals.

Limerick’s 3-32 to beat Cork in 2018’s epic All-Ireland semi-final included 20 minutes’ extra-time. And Cork never approached their 2-31 that day. But their 1-22 on Sunday was Clare’s winning score at the start of the championship. RTE co-commentator Michael Duignan said, correctly, on 15 minutes that “for a young team to come here and start like this” was “very impressive.” And the BBC Northern Ireland website noted at half-time: “Cork haven’t even been bad, it’s just that Limerick have been ruthless.” Had they been so in the second half, they might have reached 50 points, the technical term for which is…ridiculous.

The game started so frenetically that Limerick’s second point was missed by TV cameras replaying the Cork goal, scored just 22 seconds earlier. “Limerick answer STRAIGHT AWAY,” the Irish Mirror newspaper’s website exclaimed, without naming the respondent. Other outlets, including Sky commentary duo Mike Finnerty and Nicky English, almost pretended it didn’t happen. And RTE commentator Marty Morrissey admitted he was watching a replay of Cork’s goal. “Peter Casey was the scorer of that point, we’ve just been informed,” Morrissey informed us, moments later, as sheepishly as he could without baah-ing.

That Cork goal was the best score of the half, despite everything. Shane “manager’s son” Kingston’s rocket to the roof of the net had the edge on two counts. It was an instant response to a Limerick start which would have finished most teams with Cork’s All-Ireland final inexperience. And Gearoid Hegarty’s goal was also the product of Lynch taking more than the permitted four steps, as noisily noted by the Cork fans with the best view and the sharpest arithmetic.

Thereafter, bar Seamus Harmedy’s long-range effort which nearly cleared Hill 16, never mind the posts, and a natty over-the-shoulder number by Cork’s Patrick Horgan, the outstanding first-half scores were Limerick points. Aaron Gillane’s and Gearoid Hegarty’s (second) goals were spectacular, but products of horror-show defending. Meanwhile, William O’Donoghue’s backheel (brilliant if deliberate, funny if not) sent Casey away for a point from out near the sideline. Gillane pointed, two Limerick passes and 11 seconds after Cork’s Robbie O’Flynn was driving towards goal, 100 yards away.

Lynch flicked the ball up impudently off the turf and set up Tom Morrissey (”To do that at home in the back garden would be hard enough. To do it in an All-Ireland final…” said an awestruck Duignan). Gillane flicked the ball impudently over his shoulder for another fab Casey finish. Seamus Flanagan’s drilled a pass right into the palm of Darren O’Donovan’s hand for another point. Then Casey again, dummying Cork’s Niall O’Leary out of camera shot before pointing. “Beautiful hips,” Morrissey opined, disconcertingly, before clarifying that Casey “would do well on ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ I can tell you.” He could tell us too, having graced RTE’s “Strictly Come Dancing” equivalent in 2016.

After Horgan’s Limerick-esque point threatened a Cork mini, mini-revival, three defenders fashioned a passing move the forwards couldn’t have bettered, to give Diarmaid Byrnes a 100-yard shot at goal, from which he scored because, by this stage, of course he did. And, 12 seconds later, Hegarty balanced the resultant puck-out on his hurley before flicking it, FLICKING IT over…the cameras which missed Casey’s first point just, JUST learning their lesson.

“Is that the greatest first-half of hurling we’ve ever seen in an All-Ireland final? It probably is,” Duignan asked and answered. “Certainly is in my lifetime,” the 62-year-old Morrissey confirmed, echoing the thoughts of every non-Cork hurling fan worldwide. As RTE pundit Henry Shefflin modestly admitted at half-time: “2008, when my own team blitzed Waterford” was “the only similarity I can think of.”

Not even Limerick could keep THAT up. Casey’s late first-half injury departure was as big a loss to Limerick as to ‘Dancing With The Stars,’ as he surely topped a few man-of-the-match candidate lists at the time. He was unlucky too, doing himself a knee-based mischief as he adjusted sharply to retrieve about the only bad Limerick pass to that point.

Yet for all Limerick’s profligacy and Sky pundit Anthony Nash calling the second half “dour” (no bitterness there from Cork’s ex-goalie), the third quarter had magic moments. Gillane’s TWO scores from the Hogan Stand touchline. Another Lynch wonder point, despite having barely enough space to swing a cat’s eye, let alone a whole cat, and having received another great Flanagan pass.

Tom Morrissey was denied a 45th-minute goal by Cork keeper Patrick Collins. The shot was at the cliched “right height for the keeper.” But Collins had to leap horizontally yards to his left, hurley outstretched, to get near it. Then Gillane somehow lofted a 25-yard handpass to Lynch for another score, despite being on his arse by the end line. Even in the fourth quarter, Lynch fashioned another classic, 55 yards out, over his shoulder, while moving away from goal.

Matters got tetchy late on; Cork at least being competitive in some multi-player handbag-swinging. However, the game’s chaotic denouement was more joyous, Gillane hitting a post from a difficult free despite said post being shrouded into invisibility by green smoke from the flares (pyrotechnics, not trousers) let off by Limerick celebrants on the Hill.

Talk of a Limerick dynasty has been tempered by Cork winning 2021’s under-20 and minor All-Ireland finals. Convincingly. Last week. Yet, Limerick could already be celebrating a dynastic four-in-a-row but for a late officiating error in 2019’s semi-final. Proper perspective likely came from the website’s Donny Mahoney: “This was the first Limerick/Cork All-Ireland but we reckon it won’t be the last.” Though whether Cork’s kids will ever produce anything like Sunday’s first-half, or stop Limerick repeating it, very much remains to be seen.

Cork won the post-match quote contest, with manager Kieran Kingston’s suggestion that Sunday was “like trying to stop a tide with a bucket.” However, the match was not Sunday’s only one-sided two-horse race. On TV, RTE were Limerick to Sky’s Cork, inside. The commentary quotes above are mostly RTE’s for a reason, even though, living in Britain, I had to watch the game live on Sky. And when it came to Limerick captain Declan Hannan’s acceptance speech, Sky hit a low point.

The winning captain accepts the Liam McCarthy Cup and traditionally starts an acceptance speech in slightly stilted Irish which, crowd reactions’ suggest, is not universally understood until he bellows something such as (insert winning county here) “forever” (abu in Irish), which IS universally understood, by tone if nothing else. He then restarts in English. At which point on Sunday, Sky began their post-match analysis, and talked over EVERYTHING Hannan said. Sky’s pundits include two All-Ireland winners and one All-Ireland beaten finalist. So, they knew all this. And yet…

Sky aren’t bad overall (as Cork weren’t on Sunday). Replacing original presenter Rachel Wyse with Grainne McElwain has improved their coverage immeasurably. McElwain knows one end of a football from another, which Wyse didn’t always demonstrate. And their hurling pundits, JJ Delaney, Ollie Canning (the just-retired Joe’s elder brother) and Jamesie O’Connor, are ‘fine.’ But RTE pundits such as Anthony Daly, Cummins and many others transmit more in-depth knowledge of modern, fast-evolving hurling. ‘Fine,’ on-field and off on Sunday, wasn’t remotely enough.

Another great hurling championship, then. The sport seemed crisis-ridden during the National League, with referees’ strict rule interpretations facilitating free-taking contests everywhere. But the league ironed-out rule AND team kinks, although new penalty rules remained…ahem…kinky for a bit. And Championship gloriously reaffirmed what the Irish Independent newspaper’s Patrick Earley wrote in early July: “Crisis over.”

Hopefully its Covid ‘crisis over’ for Tyrone football. Championship should have finished with Sunday’s All-Ireland Football Final. Instead, the twice-postponed Kerry/Tyrone semi-final is on Saturday (3pm throw-in, Sky Sports Arena). Tyrone joint-manager Feargal Logan confirmed on Tuesday that “we’ve got everybody together” for full training, although confirmation of full availability for Saturday might have to wait until “Thursday, even Friday night.” Tyrone shouldn’t be near ‘full-strength’ in such circumstances, even with everyone nominally available. But…we’ll see.