Cork fans celebrate after the game. [Inpho/Laszlo Geczo]

Do-or-die Cork defeat Limerick in epic duel at Páirc Ui Chaoímh

Cork 3-28; Limerick 3-26

Cork faced a do-or-die situation in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Saturday evening and boy did they deliver in epic style against Munster and All Ireland holders Limerick in front of 41,000 spectators.

After a thrilling finish that saw the previous dominant Rebels go from eight points up to four points down, they conjured up every last ounce of injury in the team to pierce the Treaty defense sufficiently to edge home by two points.

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When referee Sean Stack finally sounded the long whistle, it wasn’t just the players afield who were out of breath - all who witnessed it were left gasping for air.

In one sense it was only the third round of a provincial round-robin series but the way thousands in red invaded the playing surface, it looked more like a Munster or All Ireland title had been won.

Cork had lost narrowly to Waterford and Clare in earlier rounds so it was win or bust in this game. This led to an intensity of championship fervor seldom witnessed in May of any year as the hosts refused to give an inch for the 75 minutes of the game.

Even when they were hit by the famous Limerick revival which saw a 12-point swing which resulted in a 4-point lead at the end of  regulation time, Cork were brave enough to make runs at the tough visitors rearguard that forced Kyle Hayes to concede a penalty, which Pat Horgan expertly converted before a Brian Hayes point brought the house and the curtain down on a game that will live long in the memory.

Cork’s Mark Coleman in action with Gearoid Hegarty and Aaron Gillane of Limerick.

Before the sliotar was thrown in, the fact that this game couldn’t be watched on RTE drew controversial remarks from new Taoiseach Simon Harris who said it was wrong that it was not terrestrial television instead of the GAAGO pay to view.

More tellingly, Cork wanted victory at all costs and it came despite the fact that Limerick full-forward Seamus Flanagan scored 3-3 from play, and still ended up on the losing side.

His third goal looked to have finally broken the Rebel resistance but instead with time up and injury time to come, the winners found a magnificent 1-4 to a solitary point to turn the tables in the most dramatic of fashion.

Their goal came from the referee’s decision to award a penalty when a desperate tackle by Kyle Hayes saw him wrestle sub Shane Kingston to the ground about 20 meters from goal out to the left. Stack decided there was a goal scoring chance and black carded the Limerick defender and pointed to the spot.

Patrick Horgan, the great “Hoggie,” showed his class by drilling the ball into the top corner with an unstoppable shot. That gave Cork a one-point advantage and the big wonder was would Limerick rise from the dead again to salvage a draw.

Cork had their answer as they won the puck out and this time Horgan played it down the line to Brian Hayes who stuck over a great score from an acute angle to settle matters.

Whether wearing the predominant red of the home side or green of the visitors, the 41,000 fans either celebrated or left dejected for home knowing that they had witnessed arguably the finest game of this millennium, certainly one of the best of the modern era.

Cork began the game with the sort of hunger that left no one in doubt but they would die with their boots on rather than lose this last chance at glory in 2024.

They sprinted out of the block with scores and when the fast running Seámus Harnedy lashed home the first goal of the day, you just knew they meant business.

Their decision to allow Patrick Collins puck long into the heart of the Limerick defense proved a wise move with 2-5 directly coming from this avenue of attack.

Limerick were chasing shadows as Cork hit a red-hot five point streak without reply with with Horgan, Barrett,  the excellent Darragh Fitzgibbon, and a long-range Declan Dalton free all splitting the posts. They led 1-8 to 0-3 and it could have been even worse for the visitors except Sean Finn somehow blocked Alan Connolly's goal chance.

Even when Flanagan punctured the red bandwagon with a goal, Cork went straight up the pitch and shot their second within a minute thanks to great off the ball running by Shane Barrett to shoot past Nickey Quaid.

Horgan kept the frees flowing over the black spot and when Finn pulled a hamstring and had to withdraw with the half-time gap at eight, 2-15 to 1-10, it was looking good for a home win.

Limerick came out knowing they had to up their game and it was only when sub Adam English landed a massive white flag that something clicked in their ranks.

Almost immediately the Limerick press caught out the Cork rearguard and Gearoid Hegarty’s hard-work saw him supply Flanagan to make it 2-20 to 2-18 with 18 minutes left on the clock.

Hegarty was now back in the form that saw him named as a former Hurler of the Year and added a few big outfield scores before giving Flanagan the chance to complete his hat-trick.

Cathal O’Neill added his third point before a point from Kyle Hayes looked like sealing it.

Cork wouldn't go away like before, though, and when Kingston, Connolly, and Horgan landed points, we were going all the way down to the wire with this one.

That’s when the penalty changed the complexion and Hayes’s last score got Cork home by a short nose in an epic encounter.

Limerick Manager John Kiely was exhausted at the end of a hectic 75 minutes of action.

“I'm trying to put it into perspective because it's a competition of four games. It's a league, we've played three and won two,” he said.

"We're probably looking for a little bit more consistency across the full game but we are improving all the time. I think our second-half performance was very, very admirable, there were huge positives in there for us.

"We're bitterly disappointed we didn't close out the game better ourselves. We should have, we didn't and that's on us. We've got to swallow that pill now. All credit to Cork, they kept their head in it, they didn't panic in the second half either.

"It's bitterly disappointing but we have to put it into perspective. We have another chance, we have another day and to have that in the Gaelic Grounds means a lot to us. I know our supporters will come and give these boys every encouragement in that situation. We have two weeks to get ready for it, which is something I'm grateful to have because it means we'll be full of energy by the time that game comes around,” he stressed.

Limerick remain on top of the Munster table despite this loss but could be overtaken as other counties return to action this coming weekend.

Clare or Waterford could overtake them when they meet in Ennis, while Cork could draw level if they win against a struggling Tipperary  team, but the fact that the game is in Thurles could see Tipp come out fighting along similar lines to how the Rebels greeted Limerick last Saturday.

Cork: P Collins; N O’Leary, E Downey, S O’Donoghue; T O’Mahony, R Downey, M Coleman; E Twomey (0-1), D Fitzgibbon (0-5); D Dalton (0-2f), S Barrett (1-2), S Harnedy (1-2); P Horgan (1-11, 1-0 pen, 0-10f), A Connolly (0-2), B Hayes (0-2) Subs: D Cahalane for E Downey (23), B Roche for Twomey (57), G Millerick for Coleman (61), S Kingston (0-1) for Dalton (62), T O'Connell for R Downey (66, inj).

Limerick: N Quaid; S Finn, D Morrissey, B Nash; D Byrnes (0-2f), D Hannon, K Hayes (0-1); W O’Donoghue, C O’Neill (0-3); G Hegarty (0-4), C Lynch (0-1), T Morrissey (0-2); A Gillane (0-7f), S Flanagan (3-3), D Reidy (0-1) Subs: F O'Connor for Finn (35+3, inj), A English (0-01) for Reidy (49), C Boylan for T Morrissey (61), A O'Connor (0-01) for Gillane (68), D Ó Dálaigh for Gillane (70).

Ref: S Stack (Dublin).