Can Cork finally end the long wait?
It is hard to believe that 2013 was the last time Cork were in the All-Ireland senior hurling final and it is even longer since the famed McCarthy Cup visited Leeside, 2005 in fact, the longest gap in our proud hurling history.
There are just two survivors from the 2013 final - Seamus Harnedy and captain Patrick Horgan whose wonder point late in the first game nearly won the title, until an equaliser from Clare forced a replay, and with it victory for the Banner County.
In the intervening period there has been a host of semi-final defeats, some narrowly and some heavy.
The one that really got away though was the 2018 loss to Sunday’s opponents Limerick after extra-time, when with the game entering the closing stages Cork led by six points, something similar to the scenario that unfolded two weeks ago.
Unlike 2018, Cork saw this one out after extra-time, and the manner in which they did will surely stand them ahead of the ultimate test that awaits on Sunday.
Ironically on the back of that win by Limerick in 2018, both sides have gone in different directions, Limerick bidding for a third title in four years, Cork struggling to make a return visit to hurling’s biggest day.
Until now that is.
Manager Kieran Kingston is delighted with the progress his team has made since the Munster semi-final loss to Limerick: “It’s been an improvement with every game, granted some of our play in those games we would not be happy with, but for the most part the lads have been brilliant and deserve to be where they are.”
As for the win over Kilkenny, he said: “Well if you were to write the script it’s the way you would have wanted it, but at the end of normal time not so good, but I must say the lads were very positive before the extra-time and that showed in the way they went out and won the game.”
Along with everyone else, Kieran accepts that Limerick are favourites and deservedly so: “There’s no doubt about that, and you cannot argue with it. Look they are a very good team and what they have won - League, Munster and All-Ireland titles - reflects that.”
Kieran reflected on the loss in the Munster semi-final: “For periods of that game we were very competitive, conceded two goals.Bboth could have been prevented and they altered the game, Limerick grew in confidence whereas it deflated us a bit.”
Limerick’s physical strength is a key element of their game but there is also a bit more to this team and Kieran agrees: “They have a lot more than that and how they can adapt their game has been a key part of their success.”
That said Kieran is very happy with how the team has evolved and says they are ready for the challenge: “Apart from Bill (Cooper) who is out, everyone is fit and ready. We are really looking forward to the game.
“It’s a huge game for the county and I have no doubt we are well capable of winning and we are going up to win. We will give it our best shot and hopefully that will be good enough on the day.”
For Patrick Horgan who has been in great form all year, he is treating it as just another game while of course recognising its importance: “Brilliant to be back in the final, I didn’t realise that myself and Seamus (Harnedy) are the only two who played in the last final but the lads have coped well and we are all looking forward to Sunday.”
The build-up has been less chaotic then usual with the short turnaround since the semi-final and Patrick views this as a positive: “It’s ideal really, a recovery session after the Kilkenny game then a few sharp training sessions, fitness would not be an issue at this time of the year, so yeah it’s been perfect.”
Patrick agrees with his manager that Limerick are favourites but not concerned about that side of things: “That is for others to worry about. We just concentrate on ourselves. Obviously we will plan for them but our main focus will be on how we manage our own game and work hard to get it right for the day.”
The younger members of the panel have impressed the Glen Rovers man and how they have settled into the team: “Fantastic really and when we lost a few lads with injury they adapted seamlessly and that is great to see.”
As for the captaincy it sits easily with Patrick: “Obviously it’s a nice honour but there are a lot of leaders in this team and everyone plays their part.”
Can they bridge the long gap between titles? “Well we are not going up just to make up the numbers, we respect, but do not fear Limerick and we know it will be a huge ask but we have every confidence in our own ability.”
It has the makings of a fascinating encounter. The physical strength that Limerick possess and Cork’s pace up front and a huge goal scoring threat, only one against Kilkenny but it could easily have been three or four similar opportunities, if they are created on Sunday will need to be converted.
Limerick showed their prowess in how well they played in the second half of the Munster Final turning a ten point deficit around with such a powerful performance, signalling their intent, further enhanced with how easily they disposed of Waterford in the All-Ireland semi-final, even allowing for it been a fourth game on the bounce for the Decie.
There is real depth in the squad, starting with goalkeeper Nicky Quaid, and in defence Richie English and a half-back trio of Byrnes, Hannon and Kyle Hayes.
Cian Lynch is the heartbeat of the team and when he is on form they are very hard to beat, curbing Lynch’s influence could be a game changer.
Hegarty, Gillane, Flanagan and Peter Casey are part of a formidable attacking unit.
Getting the match up right will be crucial, especially for Cork, whose structured running game has improved with every outing, and when it works it really works, when it breaks down, it usually leads to a concession of scores, accuracy in delivery will be vital.
How will Cork line up
Ger Mellerick looks set to be unavailable. Will Damien Cahalane or Eoin Cadogan or even both get the nod to start?
Both have the physical presence that will be needed in this game.
Patrick Collins has grown in stature with every outing. His save from Tony Kelly turned and probably rescued Cork’s season.
Robert Downey has taken comfortably to the full back role with relative ease and composure. Sean O’Donoghue and Niall O’Leary are showing quality in defending and distribution.
Mark Coleman had his best outing in the semi-final. Tim O’Mahoney shrugged off his late error to excel in extra-time, caught great ball and looked dangerous going forward.
Luke Meade’s work rate in midfield is unmatched but it’s fair to say there is a lot more in Darragh Fitzgibbon who has yet to hit the heights we know he is capable of. Hopefully that will happen on Sunday.
What formation will the attack take? Does Shane Kingston start - 0-7 off the bench last time, good option to have, but hard to ignore his current form. Seamus Harnedy got through an amount of hard work and chipped in with 0-2. Patrick (Horgan) will deliver his usual quota of scores for play and placed balls.
Conor Cahalane does score a lot but with the game Cork play he runs himself to a standstill and will again as does Robbie O’Flynn who has the capacity to knock over a few points and his ability to create scores is also an important factor.
Shane Barrett did not enjoy the best of outings the last time out.
He did chip over a neat point but he is a very good player and has a part to play. He might have to sit out the start of this one but a good option to have.
Then there is Jack O’Connor, searing pace - which I am sure Limerick will have devised a plan for - and a keen eye for goal. He always goes for the jugular when the chances come his way. It’s great that he has the confidence to go for it, could be a match winner.
Cork’s bench was crucial last time, apart from Kingston, Alan Cadogan, Declan Dalton and Alan Connolly all made vital contributions, once again more than the starting 15 players will be needed to win this final.
There is a view that for Cork to win they will need to up the level of performance by at least another notch or two and Limerick’s form might take a dip - unlikely they are a confident and efficient team and very well coached and supremely confident.
Picking a winner
Limerick are going to be hard to beat but there is a resolve and determination in this Cork team that is evolving all the time - get a decent start or more importantly deny Limerick a decent start.
Hang in there and maybe with the last quarter dawning be in contention, better still be ahead and then drive for victory.
It can be done and while not many can see Limerick losing, I have a sneaky feeling that a Mc Carthy (Larry) could be presenting Mc Carthy (Liam) to a fellow Corkman around 5pm on Sunday.
Normally I would finish with see you on the South Mall on Monday night but this is an All-Ireland weekend with a difference - team travelling up on the morning, no post-match banquet, home that night, cup staying in Dublin - but we will accept all that if the long wait finally ends.
It’s a huge weekend for Cork teams, best of luck to all, and to those lucky enough to get their hands on a precious ticket.