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Seán Moran: Cork’s huge intervention has electrified the county – and the championship

Faced with existential threat in Munster, the county rallied and produced an extraordinary night of hurling against history-chasing champions

A casual conversation in Croke Park some years ago, with people who would know, enlightened me that two counties particularly missed at the top end of championship action were Cork hurlers and Armagh footballers. At the time, neither were especially prominent.

The luck of the draw is a constant concern in terms of attendances. Get a good pairing and they will come. Otherwise, they just won’t. Teams in question should ideally be on the way up, rather than former champions in the painful process of losing their grip and clawing desperately at each descending ledge as they topple down the mountainside.

Too much success and you end up with the Dublin footballers, who were an irresistible pull when striving and falling short, and for a little while after they had finally arrived. But supporters get bored with constant success as well.

That was visible at Sunday’s Leinster football final with its attendance of 23,113 – the first time since 1958 the crowd at this event has dipped below 30,000 with Dublin playing. That match was also against Louth, then All-Ireland champions themselves, when 27,689 clicked through the turnstiles in Páirc Tailteann in Navan, as the new Hogan Stand was being built in Croke Park.

It is hard to determine whether the Armagh footballers are still seen as on an upwards trajectory after narrowly losing another Ulster final but it will may well depend on what sort of shape they are in after the All-Ireland group stages, if and when they head for Croke Park.

Cork hurlers, though, produced a huge intervention in Munster, which electrified the championship.

If the county’s support base was feeling in any way ambivalent after two defeats and facing into a championship-defining match with the five-in-a-row chasing champions, this was not apparent beforehand.

One experienced match-goer was struck by how fired-up the Cork supporters were, a vast cohort of 18- to 25-year-olds bedecked in county jerseys and fully switched on for what was to come. He reflected that most would have no recollection of Cork winning MacCarthy Cups.

A previous championship match between the counties in 2018 had marked Limerick as growing contenders for the All-Ireland that they duly claimed later that year for the first time since 1973. It had been a sweltering June holiday weekend, a Saturday night perfect for hurling.

It ended in an honourable draw. Fourteen-man Limerick rallied after losing a young Aaron Gillane for half the match and Declan Hannon to an early injury. It was a scalp for them rather than Cork, then on the way to winning back-to-back Munster titles and also – little did they realise – to getting beaten by Limerick in an epic All-Ireland semi-final.

The same observer had been present on that occasion but said it had been entirely different. Replica jerseys and good humour abounded but there was nothing like the thrumming tension of four days ago. Jokes and banter had given way to high spirits, certainly, but wired with an anxious anticipation.

What unfolded on Saturday impacted on everyone watching, including the GAA’s first full house in the redeveloped Páirc Uí Chaoimh. On these pages Denis Walsh delivered an unambiguous verdict: “Cancel the mythology: a better hurling game than this is unimaginable.”

It wouldn’t be easy to find a dissenting voice. A crackling atmosphere was generated and maintained by Cork supporters, beginning at the moment Séamus Harnedy flung down the gauntlet after five minutes and even as the match turned against them, but never quite disappeared from sight, to the explosive endgame.

There was enough to spill into watching bars nationwide, where white-knuckle gasps greeted that most reliable of crowd-pleasers: the unexpected defeat of champions in a thrilling finish when hope, having been summoned only to falter, revived and was finally realised.

What of the future? Are Cork – as suggested by Irish Times hurling analyst Nicky English, who has spent more than 40 years watching them at close quarters – a genie released from the bottle?

Who knows – they aren’t even released from Munster yet and that depends on next Sunday’s showdown in Thurles with Tipperary.

Pat Ryan’s team did, however, finally unleash the game they have been trying to locate: fast transfer of ball, creation of space and relentless pace in attack. The reward was a first defeat of reigning All-Ireland champions since springing an ambush on Limerick five years ago, and only a second in 10 years despite all the added opportunity of the round-robin format.

As scoring totals soar, Cork took on the main drivers of this inflation, saw their 3-26 – surely a record for a losing team in a championship – and raised them 0-2. Limerick’s score was one point fewer than in last year’s Cork match, which had been enough to win by the narrowest of margins.

As a blueprint, it underlined the importance of goals. Limerick aren’t goal-shy but what has marked them apart is the relentlessness of their point-taking. In the seven seasons since winning the All-Ireland, they have been outpointed in 12 championship matches out of 41.

On seven of those occasions, Limerick have not won the match, including all three defeats in 2019, the last year they failed to win the All-Ireland. Chances are you won’t score more points so goals will be necessary.

Cork managed it on Saturday but it was the goals that brought the energy and, through Pat Horgan’s nerveless crashing home of the injury-time penalty, the result.

Whether it becomes the genesis for a reborn Cork or just a footnote in the story of hurling’s first five-in-a-row will be known over the coming weeks. In the meantime, let’s enjoy the journey.

sean.moran@irishtimes.com

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