Vindication for Rebel management team
IT was Cork's sweetest win since Jimmy Barry-Murphy took the helm last year, not least because of the widespread pessimism surrounding the team's prospects in the lead-up to the game.
That didn't stem primarily from the fact that Cork had been relegated in the league, although their display in the relegation play-off against Clare did leave quite a bit desired. They didn't exactly distinguish themselves either in their earlier meeting with the Banner at Pairc Uí Rinn, but they had performed creditably otherwise, and their form overall was no more inconsistent than any other team in Division 1A where the margins between qualification for the play-offs and relegation were wafer-thin in the end.
There was certainly an over-reaction in some quarters following the Rebels demotion, with a number of pundits suggesting that JBM was going nowhere with this particular group of players. That must have been hard to take for the team management, comprising JBM, Kieran Kingston, Ger Cunningham, Seanie McGrath and Johnny Crowley, but they had become accustomed to shipping brickbats since the start of the season.
The decision to axe a couple of seasoned stalwarts from the panel raised quite a few eyebrows, for instance, while there had also been rumblings of disharmony behind the scenes. The management had repeatedly denied there was anything amiss, and the manner in which the team competed in the league confirmed as much.
Still, the fact that there was a few defections and retirements from last year's squad served to increase speculation that Cork might struggle to build on the progress made in 2012 when the team qualified for a league final and an All-Ireland semi final. Heading into last Sunday's showdown with Clare, Cork had three first-choice players – Paudie O'Sullivan, who will be sidelined for the entire campaign, Pa Cronin and Lorcan McLoughlin – ruled out, and that was the main reason why they were very much cast in the role of the underdog.
At the press night last week, Barry-Murphy agreed it was a blow to Cork's hopes, but he insisted it wasn't going to be an insurmountable handicap, and that he was satisfied there was enough depth in the panel to cope. He also made the point that it wasn't until the concluding stages of both league games with Clare that Cork faltered, adding he was confident all the hard work done in training since the conclusion of the league would have rectified that problem.
Not everyone shared Barry-Murphy's optimism, but his observations certainly rang true last Sunday, as Cork rose to the occasion in great style to turn the tables and unceremoniously shatter Clare's bid for a provincial title. It silenced their knockers for the moment at least, but you can be sure they will ready to stick the knife in again should Cork come a cropper in the Munster final against Limerick.
Last Sunday's display was most encouraging, there is no question about that, but it hardly provided concrete evidence that Cork have improved their ranking in the pecking-order to any great extent. As the saying goes, one swallow doesn't make a summer, and it remains to be seen whether Cork can produce the goods on a consistent basis from now on. What it did confirm is that Cork are capable of matching most teams on a good day, and that all the people who alleged they had regressed since last year were way off the mark.
Arguably, the most positive aspect of Cork's display was their tremendous work-rate, and there is no denying that the players ticked all the right boxes in terms of attitude, intensity and commitment. They produced a lot of quality hurling as well, particularly with the strong wind behind them in the second half when their skill-levels, option-taking and point-scoring bordered on perfection.
It was a chastening experience for Clare, and it goes without saying they performed very poorly overall, although Davy Fitzgerald's tender-aged charges did show flashes of their potential at times, but they squandered quite a few clear-cut goal chances at vital stages, and, burdened with the tag of favourites, they lost their composure, almost inevitably, once it became obvious things weren't going according to plan.
Had they bagged a goal or two, which they should have done, in the first half, it could have worked wonders for their confidence, and there might have been a much different story to tell at the end of the 70 minutes. I wouldn't be at all surprised should Clare recover from this set-back to make a major impact in the latter stages of the championship. It was a day of vindication for the Cork management, a day of immense pride and satisfaction for the players, and it sufficed to dispel all the perceived early season turbulence in one fell swoop.
Hopefully, there will be a few more like it to come before the championship has run its course.