Eighteen years have elapsed since a 15-man Cork last lost a Championship game to Limerick over 70 minutes. But defeat on Sunday at the Gaelic Grounds puts John Meyler's squad behind the eight-ball. Here are five key changes Cork must get right to be back in business.
Cork’s lack of squad depth and killer instinct are considered their biggest shortcomings, and yet the one characteristic of their two-year unbeaten run in Munster was how they finished out games. In that eight-game sequence, they outscored the opposition in the second half on five occasions. They even bettered Limerick in the second half of last year’s All-Ireland semi-final before coming unstuck in extra-time. But in the context of what happened against Tipperary last Sunday, and in the win over Limerick in February, the start to this game is of vital importance to Cork.
Keep what is an extremely expectant Limerick crowd quiet and they might find the masses actually work in their favour. At the same stadium three months ago, Cork were 1-10 to 0-4 ahead after 26 minutes. Nobody is expecting a repeat but they must take the game to Limerick from the opening whistle even if that means straddling the line of what is - and isn't - permitted.
As Tipperary’s James Barry said after their victory in Páirc Uí Chaoimh: “As a back, you have to play on the edge and be half-willing to give away the free.” Other than Eoin Cadogan and perhaps newcomer Niall O’Leary, no other Cork defender showed that attitude last weekend.
In under three minutes of last Sunday’s first half, Conor Lehane went from brutal to brilliant. Found one-on-one inside, he struck weakly off his back foot and was easily blocked down. But after two Patrick Horgan frees had Cork within three, Lehane was on his toes to intercept Brian Hogan’s puck-out and fired a point before adding another before the break. It’s Lehane’s speed of foot and thought which gives him an edge.
Few players score more elegant points but when the focus is on work-rate up front, he’s usually the first in the firing line. In his ninth season, he has yet to pick up an All-Star. He has come close on at least two occasions and his pedigree is unquestionable but his streakiness remains a worry. Be it by drawing in defenders when in possession or compelling them to make mistakes without it, it's better that he not score at all than deliver another one of those deceptive three-point shows.
For the experience as much as their physical presence, John Meyler was happy to recall Stephen McDonnell and Aidan Walsh to the panel this year. “We need to strengthen the panel and we need to strengthen the team,” said Meyler at the end of 2018. His intention to go with 13 of the 2018 All-Ireland semi-final starting team against Tipperary last Sunday (14, you would imagine, had Colm Spillane been fit) didn’t suggest his options had been bolstered since last season.
Likewise, using just four replacements at the weekend (the second was only made 10 minutes after Tipperary went eight points up) didn’t point to strength in depth. Meyler showed ruthlessness in making two half-time changes in last year’s Munster SHC game against Limerick in Páirc Uí Chaoimh but otherwise he, like his predecessor Kieran Kingston, often avoids personnel changes until midway through the second half and seldom uses his full quota. If Cork’s talent pool has greater depth, it should be utilised.
Joni Mitchell’s refrain came to mind. Cork not knowing what they had in Bill Cooper til he was gone. Cork should have more in the rhythm section but often it is down to Cooper with assistance from Daniel Kearney and Christopher Joyce. The Youghal man is the one who maintains the team's tempo, allowing Darragh Fitzgibbon to drive forward. Look at how he shackled Cian Lynch in the League game in February or how he won the ball back for Joyce to set up Horgan for Cork’s first goal. His importance cannot be overstated.
If Cork’s forwards are known to have their off-days, the biggest disappointment in going down to Tipperary was the collective performance of the half-back line. Joyce was whipped off first, Tim O’Mahony struggled and Mark Coleman was regularly suffocated or ruffled to the point that his usually excellent distribution was upset.
Tipperary had clearly targeted Coleman as his team’s best distributor and John Kiely doesn’t need reminding of how vital it is to cut off the supply line close to source. Anthony Nash and Coleman have enjoyed a good restart partnership and it will need to be solid if they are to bypass the statuesque Limerick half-back line. Coleman should have in-form Gearóid Hegarty for company but has the legs to escape him (though Graeme Mulcahy and Peter Casey will be hunting him down too).
Joyce can deliver long quality ball too but maybe Cork can drop a player deep as a distraction to enable Coleman drift into space for Nash's puck outs. This could be key to breaking down Limerick.