Munster Senior Hurling Championship – Limerick three-in-a-row bid off to a dream start

The Limerick team. – Photo Den O’Brien. – Munster Senior Hurling Championship Limerick v Cork

By John Redington
“A satisfying performance. A huge amount of effort. Only disappointment was the seventeen wides but we’ll work on that.” First outings in the championship always come with a degree of apprehension. But that had turned to satisfaction as manager John Kiely looked back as his Limerick hurlers began their search for a fourth All-Ireland senior title in five years with a thumping eleven point victory over Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Sunday before the GAA’s first full house since the lockdown.
“We’d a good start and a good restart but we just didn’t kick on,” was how Cork manager Kieran Kingston summed up his side’s only home fixture of their four in Munster’s Round Robin. “Today didn’t define our season. But it makes it difficult because the next three games are away.”
Installed as hot favourites, the pressure was on the champions right from the start as they fell five points behind within minutes but, once they soaked up the Rebels’ opening fury, they clinically took control of the middle third, found the net twice and, thanks to a wonder Nickie Quaid save, took a four point lead into the dressing-room.
Another blitz met them as they restarted and again Quaid came to the rescue as the Cork response equalised but never regained the lead and, once that had been repelled, Limerick powered away to as impressive a victory as they might have hoped for as the race for provincial honours returned to the league format after an absence of two COVID-restricted seasons.
In their fifth season at the pinnacle of hurling, Limerick have learned all about intensity, not just in revving up the engine to assault mode but also keeping it charged with unrelenting focus to make their periods of dominance pay on the scoreboard. This game was no different. Cork gave it their all at the start of both halves but pushing their entire effort forward left holes further back and, when the opposing defence refused to buckle, they were picked off after they were forced to draw breath.
The Rebels also had to contend with a half-back line coming up with its best ever performance of Limerick’s Golden era. Not only did Diarmaid Byrnes, Declan Hannon and Barry Nash withstand whatever was thrown at them but their ruthless distribution launched wave after wave of attack. And just to rub in their superiority, they scored nine points between them, six of them from play, while the half-forward line they were marking could manage only a total of three.
Adding to Kiely’s satisfaction must have been the impact from the wider squad who haven’t been regular starters during the previous four campaigns. This season’s league had cast doubts over the depth of the Limerick panel but the return of Mike Casey, as sharp as ever despite two injury-ravaged years, as well as the introduction of Cathal O’Neill, showed that the team is more than a fifteen-horse show.
With the strong breeze into the Blackrock End behind them, Cork exploded into action straight from the throw-in, feeding Conor Cahalane to streak up the middle and lay off to Shane Kingston to blast to the net and, following two Limerick wides, Shane Barrett stretched them further ahead. However, they failed to build on their advantage as Limerick settled and Byrnes found his range off two huge frees sandwiching a monster from play off a quick free.
When Nash split the posts, the visitors were on a roll but Patrick Horgan’s free broke the sequence only to be met by Kyle Hayes turning his marker and blazing in from the wing to drill past Patrick Collins. After Darragh Fitzgibbon and Gearóid Hegarty swapped scores, the Rebels found some space to use the wind as Robbie O’Flynn, O’Mahony and Horgan’s free restored their lead but Tom Morrissey and Hegarty had the sides level again.
A contested free allowed Horgan to restore Cork’s advantage but, with the break in sight, the intensity of Limerick’s power play started to tell as Aaron Gillane sent over his first free and then followed up after Hayes pounced on a turnover and fed him to burst unchallenged at the goals and bat down a hopper to the corner of Collins’s net. Then, just to get the last drop from the momentum, Cian Lynch struck a glorious point from way out on the sideline to send Limerick into the dressing-rooms leading 2-9 to 1-8.
Cork put the same intensity into the restart as to the start as O’Flynn pointed within seconds, Horgan was fed by half-time sub Séamus Harnedy only to see his point blank shot diverted over by Quaid and Conor Lehane struck twice to equalise inside just three minutes. However, Byrnes’s immediate response knocked the rally off track and, once Gillane, Hayes, Dan Morrissey and Byrnes again followed up, the Rebels had seen all their work undone.
Horgan replied only to be met by Hegarty as was his free by Lynch’s strike from on his knees before the intensity dropped after Gillane’s free and skipper Hannon stretched the lead to seven. But Cork couldn’t find a response other than Horgan frees, the first in response to Gillane blazing over the crossbar, the second to Nash and O’Neill and the last to close the scoring after Pat Ryan, O’Neill and Dave Reidy commemorated their introduction with scores and Byrnes sending over Limerick’s final point.
Scorers: Aaron Gillane 1-4 (0-2 frees); Diarmaid Byrnes 0-6 (3 frees); Kyle Hayes 1-1; Gearóid Hegarty 0-3; Barry Nash, Cian Lynch, Cathal O’Neill 0-2 each; Tom Morrissey, Dan Morrissey, Declan Hannon, Pat Ryan, Dave Reidy 0-1 each;
Cork: Patrick Horgan 0-10 (8 frees); Shane Kingston 1-0; Robbie O’Flynn, Conor Lehane 0-2 each; Shane Barrett, Darragh Fitzgibbon, Tim O’Mahony 0-1 each.
Limerick: Nickie Quaid; Seán Finn, Dan Morrissey, Mike Casey; Diarmaid Byrnes, Declan Hannon, Barry Nash; Darragh O’Donovan, William O’Donoghue; Gearóid Hegarty, Cian Lynch, Tom Morrissey; Aaron Gillane, Kyle Hayes, Graeme Mulcahy.
Subs: Cathal O’Neill for Tom Morrissey (55), Dave Reidy for Darragh O’Donovan (60), Oisín O’Reilly for Kyle Hayes (62), Conor Boylan for Gearóid Hegarty (68), Pat Ryan for Graeme Mulcahy (68).
Cork: Patrick Collins; Niall O’Leary, Damien Cahalane, Seán O’Donoghue; Tim O’Mahony, Mark Coleman, Ciarán Joyce; Darragh Fitzgibbon, Ger Mellerick; Robbie O’Flynn, Shane Barrett, Conor Cahalane; Shane Kingston, Patrick Horgan, Conor Lehane.
Subs: Séamus Harnedy for Conor Cahalane (half-time), Robert Downey for Damian Cahalane (52), Jack O’Connor for Shane Kingston (54), Alan Connolly for Shane Barrett (54), Luke Meade for Conor Lehane (60).
Referee: John Keenan, Wicklow.