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John Gardiner: 'These Limerick lads are a different breed. They're battle-hardened and never give up'
The42′s columnist John Gardiner looks back at Limerick’s thrilling extra-time win over Cork at Croke Park.

AFTER YESTERDAY’S CLASSIC between Galway and Clare, it was almost greedy to expect the same drama when Limerick and Cork clashed this evening. But that’s exactly how it transpired.

Pat Ryan celebrates after the game James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

The second All-Ireland semi-final of the weekend certainly live up to its billing. The teams shared 68 scores including five goals in a cracking encounter that ebbed and flowed throughout. Even looking at the amount of times the sides were level in normal time, it was incredible.

Barring a few brief spells no team really got a firm foothold in the game, but Limerick fully deserved their victory. From the 55th minute on, it was all Limerick. They were the stronger and hungrier team down the home straight.

Cork didn’t score from play between Darragh Fitzgibbon’s effort in the 61st minute and Jack O’Connor’s point in the 77th minute. Even at that, O’Connor’s score was a consolation after two Limerick goals in the space of two minutes during the second period of extra-time.

Limerick had a handle on the Cork puck-outs from early on. The Rebels found it hard to get ball on the half-forward line, while Limerick’s half-backs provided a good platform to attack. 11 minutes into the game, Limerick had six points on the board. They’d have been further in front had Aaron Gillane kicked his goal chance into the net rather than over the bar.

Aaron Gillane reacts after missing Tommy Dickson / INPHO Aaron Gillane reacts after missing a goal chance Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

Graeme Mulcahy was good and scored four points. For both of Gillane’s first-half goal chances, he caught a ball over the heads of two different corner-backs. You can’t cough up scoring chances like that and expect to win.

I was thinking they were chances Gillane needed to be taking, but in fairness he was outstanding overall. He was the top man on the field. Even outside of his frees, which he nailed, he was Limerick’s most consistent forward and had the Cork full-back line on the run all day. The quality of ball going into the Limerick full-forwards was so good that I felt sorry for the Cork full-backs.

Cork only played in bursts. At the start of the second-half, Limerick had four or five wides in-a-row. Conor Lehane was average up to that point, but he roared into the game with a point in the 37th minute. He got another point soon after and then his 52nd minute goal should have inspired his team-mates to kick on. But they went to sleep for a lengthy period and Limerick kept the scoreboard ticking over.

The Treaty had the momentum at the end of normal-time, but I’ve seen panic and the fear of losing a semi-final hit plenty of other inexperienced teams at that stage of a game.

These lads are a different breed. One of the frees Gillane scored near the end of the 70 minutes was from way out on the left touchline. It was probably his hardest free of the day but no bother to him – he split the posts.

Aaron Gillane scores a late free to put his side ahead Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Nickie Quaid made a really important save from Harnedy in the 72nd minute where he got a beautiful flick on the ball to deny a goal. It was a massive save in the context of the game and kept Limerick alive.

When the pressure came on they still persisted with their short-passing game and looked unbelievably composed. Watching the stuff Cian Lynch pulls off at vital stages in games – you wouldn’t attempt it in a local street league! But he executes it when it matters most.

Shane Dowling’s introduction highlighted the difference between both benches. The Na Piarsaigh forward did what he needed to do and more. He won the penalty himself and went for a goal when slotting it over would have edged Limerick two points in front. We all knew he had that in the locker – but what a finish!

Robbie O’Flynn, who’s back from an injury, was the only real sub to make an impact for Cork. On the Limerick side, Peter Casey came on and showed massive composure, while Pat Ryan’s showed real pace to get away from the Cork defence and his finish over Anthony Nash was fantastic.

Before they played Clare in the Munster round-robin phase, Limerick looked like the most improved team out of them all. I worried for them coming up against Kilkenny but beating Brian Cody’s men showed they’re a battle-hardened outfit.

Peter Casey, Darragh O’Donovan, Graeme Mulcahy and Seamus Flanagan celebrate Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Again today there were massive questions being asked of them but they never gave up even when they were six behind after 64 minutes. This is a different Limerick side than we’re used to.

After the game, John Kiely asked the media not to approach his players before the final. They’ve probably learned a few things from 2007, even if Seamus Hickey and Graeme Mulcahy are probably the only two lads who’ve been there before. They’ve won All-Ireland U21 titles in recent years but a senior final is a different animal completely.

John Kiely celebrates after the game Oisin Keniry / INPHO Oisin Keniry / INPHO / INPHO

You have to enjoy the build-up to All-Ireland finals but realise where the boundaries are too. Their families can enjoy the buzz and hype, but these guys need to focus on performing for 70 minutes in three weeks’ time.

Their displays so far this year suggest they won’t struggle with the pressure on the big day. It seems to me that Kiely’s side are used to it. It was a massive day for them and the support they had was incredible.

The big thing for me is this Limerick squad is far stronger than what they’ve had in the past. The proof was there today with the 2-5 that the subs contributed. That’s where Cork were lacking today.

The Munster champions gave themselves a platform to drive it home, but they failed to close it out. Patrick Horgan didn’t have his best day and Mike Casey did well to keep him very quiet from play. But Horgan showed great courage to knock over the pressure free from midfield that forced extra-time.

Pat Horgan sends the game to extra time James Crombie / INPHO Cork’s Pat Horgan sends the game to extra time James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

To experience another day of hurling like that after the summer we’ve had was remarkable. Hurling just keeps on giving and these inter-county players deserve a serious amount of credit for putting in displays like this week after week.

Limerick will look ahead to the final, but next weekend we’ve got another huge one to look forward to between Galway and Clare in Thurles. Bring it on.

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