Despite the huge margin of victory for Cork in the Munster final, there was probably a lot of admiration among neutrals for the display of the Clare footballers yesterday. They were, after all, 22/1 outsiders to win yet throughout the entire game they kept their heads up and at the end had scored 13 points against the All-Ireland favourites.
Of course Cork were deserving winners because they were able to manufacture and score the three killer goals that ensured their passage to the All-Ireland quarter-finals with ease. Sometimes outsiders throw caution to the wind and go for bust, which is what Clare did most of the time, but when you concede three goals in the first half of a big championship game, your goose is cooked.
Of course that should be two goals. Because if the third one, when Nicholas Murphy tipped the ball into the net, was not already over the line it was illegal -- due to the square-ball rule -- but that is of little consolation for Clare. It is truly amazing that what would appear to be simple rules of play in Gaelic football couldn't be enforced properly by the combined efforts of seven match officials.
Last year, the GAA responded to a few wrong square-ball decisions by going to the trouble of changing the rule yet here we are yesterday with yet another blunder and, as usually happens, it was against the struggling county and in favour of one of the strong teams.
For Conor Counihan, the biggest bonus yesterday must have been seeing some forwards back in action whose injuries last summer wrecked their All-Ireland hopes -- and what a difference they made. Ciaran Sheehan, in particular, had an immense game of vision, ball control and physical power, while Fintan Goold and Daniel Goulding also were restored to the Cork attack fit as fiddles.
The Cork attack is probably going to be the deciding factor in the destination of this year's All-Ireland title because at full strength they are the best in the country. Ally that to a strong selection of midfield partners and it is obvious that those who wish to prevent Cork taking the title have a real battle on their hands.
But most teams have weaknesses and it could be that the Cork backline is not as strong as it was a couple of years ago.
Granted, Graham Canty's absence from centre-back is always a major psychological blow but even so, the ease with which Clare forwards Rory Donnelly, Michael O'Shea and David Tubridy got through the opposing defence must raise some doubts in the Cork camp. A player who deserves exceptional credit is the Clare midfielder Gary Brennan, who not alone competed with Aidan Walsh in the centre of the field but went forward to score and was a great rallying force for his team whenever they looked like collapsing.
Cork are only two games away from another All-Ireland final and even at this stage they are the team to beat.
Hammerings harming game
At this time of year as the championship gathers pace, the only interest for a lot of counties is the result of their last game, if their team has won of course. Little attention is paid to the results of the earlier rounds in May and June.
It is the same with the many counties who have to experience their team being heavily beaten in the championship, with little sympathy from anyone else.
In the past 10 weeks no less than nine counties have suffered championship defeats of between 10 and 22 points. The worst of these was when Sligo beat New York by 3-21 to 0-8 and Mayo beat Leitrim by 4-20 to 0-10.
The damage to a county that gets hammered is substantial despite the fact that some make a partial recovery through the qualifiers.
Remember, unlike the qualifiers, where the draws are made 'on the hoof' after each round, the provincial championship draws take place in November, which means that all counties have at least six months to prepare for their opening game. So counties cannot complain that they had no time to prepare -- yet we still get hammerings like these every year.
We cannot say that the present 33-county All-Ireland championship is actually fair or equitable -- it cannot be, because we have population variations of hundreds of thousands in counties, with a consequent imbalance in player numbers -- and even more importantly nowadays, major differences in financial resources to bankroll team preparations.
Many of the recent All-Ireland football winners have spent in the region of €1m -- but many counties could never aspire to have even half that figure.
Proposals have been made in the past to create a more equitable championship, but they have all come to nothing and the main reason is that the weaker counties -- despite getting many hammerings over the years -- were not interested in making any changes.