Limerick captain Declan Hannon lifts the Liam MacCarthy Cup.
Limerick captain Declan Hannon lifts the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

All-Ireland SHC final: Limerick continue to scale new heights

All-Ireland SHC final

Limerick 3-32 Cork 1-22

Kevin Egan at Croke Park.

A record-breaking performance from Limerick at Croke Park this afternoon has secured the county’s first ever back-to-back All-Ireland titles, and in doing so, cemented their legacy as one of hurling’s greatest ever teams for years to come.

Outside of the traditional top three powers, instances of counties winning back-to-back All-Irelands have been incredibly rare. Consequently, the question coming into today’s game was if this Limerick team could take their place alongside Wexford (1955 & 1956) and Galway (1987 & 1988) in that exclusive group, or if Cork would break their run of 16 years without lifting the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

That question was emphatically answered in the most devastating fashion imaginable, as John Kiely’s side blew their opponents out of the water with a scintillating first half in which they scored an incredible 3-18. This put them well on the road to scoring 3-32 by the final whistle, eclipsing the record for the highest total ever recorded by a single team in a final, previously held by Cork (6-21 in 1970) and Kilkenny (3-30 in 2008).

After their Munster final heroics which thwarted Tipperary, people asked the question if Limerick’s second-half performance in that game, particularly their incredible comeback from ten points down over the course of the third quarter, could ever be bettered. Their second quarter this afternoon was arguably on the same level, as they added 1-10 to the 2-8 they posted before the first water break.

For that opening quarter, Cork did all they could to hang on Limerick’s coat-tails and were just about managing to do so, even if they struggled to match the pace and the intensity of their Munster rivals. The Rebels came with a plan to try and keep the ball out of contact and to work it around the fringes, but all too often that approach broke down in the face of incredible swarming tackles from Limerick, and cracks started to appear. Those cracks led to the concession of more and more scores, and by half-time, it was already incredibly difficult to imagine the Rebels turning the game around.

Following an emotional parade where supporters raised the roof of Croke Park with roars that sounded like an exhalation of all the frustration that the nation has felt over the last 18 months, it took all of 13 seconds for Cian Lynch to open the scoring for the Shannonsiders, as he split the posts from the right wing with an incredible strike. That point was barely an appetiser for the whirlwind start that was in store.

An equalising free from Patrick Horgan was soon followed by Lynch making his second big play, a slick handpass into Gearóid Hegarty that allowed the 2020 hurler of the year to fire a low shot under Patrick Collins for the game’s opening goal.

Cork’s response was no less emphatic, Shane Kingston justifying his inclusion when he turned down the option of an easy point to instead drive past Séan Finn and rifle the ball into the roof of the net.

Within a minute, Limerick had undone the damage through a brace of points from Peter Casey and Declan Hannon, and it felt like there had barely been time for the 40,000 people in attendance to draw breath. A championship that had brought us no end of drama was on the way to delivering a final that would live long in the memory - even if at that early stage, the reason why it would be so memorable was yet to become clear.

Séamus Flanagan fired one over his shoulder, Casey delivered the second of his five first half points with a majestic swing from the right sideline, and while Cork kept in touch through a series of frees, they didn’t seem to offer the same threat from open play. Their first white flag from play came after Robbie O’Flynn spun out of a tackle and set up Jack O’Connor, but any tinges of optimism brought about by that score were quickly crushed.

Nickie Quaid’s puckout landed right down on Flanagan, he played the ball across to Aaron Gillane and from 15 metres out, Gillane hammered the sliothar into the sod and past Collins.

WALKING ON AIR: Aaron Gillane celebrates after scoring his side's second goal.
WALKING ON AIR: Aaron Gillane celebrates after scoring his side's second goal.

Séamus Harnedy came into the game with three fine first half points as he tried to match the imposing physical challenge posed by Limerick, but once the first interval passed, the champions began to turn the screw. Their hurling reached even greater heights of accuracy, speed and precision as they racked up the points and gradually pushed the lead into double figures. Repeatedly, Limerick forced turnovers and converted them into scores in the blink of an eye, perfectly illustrated by their third goal.

Twice in the one attacking move, Cork’s difficulty was on show as they tried to play passes into forwards that were outnumbered, in part because of the lack of options. Patrick Horgan was able to win his ball between two defenders but Shane Kingston wasn’t, and Limerick secured the turnover. Kyle Hayes fed Gearóid Hegarty, and with Cork reeling, already ten points adrift, Hegarty cut in from the left corner and rifled the sliothar inside the near post.

3-17 to 1-10 became 3-18 to 1-11 at half-time, and not alone did Limerick’s march to a third title in four years look inevitable, so did the breaking of two scoring records, the highest ever match total (previously 62 points in 2014) and the highest ever total by a single team.

Both records were broken eventually, but not as decisively as might have been expected as the game failed to reach the same heights after the restart. Cian Lynch picked off some excellent individual scores, Patrick Horgan continued to keep Cork’s total moving with some excellent free-taking, but in general there was a marked increase in the number of errors, while Limerick were content to protect their goal and keep their opponents at arm’s length.

That was all they needed to do. Their task had been all but completed before Fergal Horgan's half-time whistle, and as the rest of the hurling world reflects on the national landscape in the aftermath of this awe-inspiring victory, a huge amount of work lies ahead for any team that hopes to topple this history-making group any time soon.

Scorers for Limerick: Aaron Gillane 1-6 (0-3f), Cian Lynch 0-6, Gearóid Hegarty 2-2, Peter Casey 0-5, Tom Morrissey 0-3, Declan Hannon, Diarmaid Byrnes (0-1f) 0-2 each, Séamus Flanagan, Barry Nash, Darragh O’Donovan, Graeme Mulcahy, David Reidy, Pat Ryan 0-1 each.

Scorers for Cork: Patrick Horgan 0-12 (0-10f), Séamus Harnedy 0-4, Shane Kingston 1-0, Jack O’Connor, Luke Meade, Niall O’Leary, Mark Coleman (f), Alan Cadogan, Shane Barrett 0-1 each.

Limerick: Nickie Quaid; Seán Finn, Dan Morrissey, Barry Nash; Diarmaid Byrnes, Declan Hannon, Kyle Hayes; William O’Donoghue, Darragh O’Donovan; Tom Morrissey, Cian Lynch, Gearóid Hegarty; Peter Casey, Séamus Flanagan, Aaron Gillane.

Subs: Graeme Mulcahy for Casey (35+1), David Reidy for Lynch (42, temp), David Reidy for Hegarty (62), Colin Coughlan for Hannon (65), Barry Murphy for Mulcahy (68), Pat Ryan for T Morrissey (69)

Cork: Patrick Collins; Niall O’Leary, Robert Downey, Seán O’Donoghue; Eoin Cadogan, Mark Coleman, Tim O’Mahony; Darragh Fitzgibbon, Luke Meade; Robbie O’Flynn, Shane Kingston, Conor Cahalane; Jack O’Connor, Patrick Horgan, Séamus Harnedy.

Subs: Damien Cahalane for C Cahalane (half-time), Alan Cadogan for O’Connor (47), Shane Barrett for Fitzgibbon (47), Seán O’Leary-Hayes for O’Leary (47), Niall Cashman for O’Donoghue (52), Declan Dalton for O’Flynn (55).

*Referee: Fergal Horgan (Tipperary). *