Clare have firepower to shoot down Rebels
When the fixtures for this year's Allianz League were published, few thought that the opening Saturday night clash between Cork and Clare would provide a foretaste for the Munster hurling final.
There was always a good chance that Clare, who were paired with Limerick in the semi-final, would make it to the big day but Cork's prospects looked limited after being drawn against Tipperary, with Waterford awaiting the winners.
All changed on a February night when over 5,000 people, most of them from Cork, went to Páirc Uí Rinn for the league clash with Clare and came away sensing that there might be something different about the Rebels this year. They won by seven points with a team decorated by fresh faces.
Mark Coleman, Luke Meade, Darragh Fitzgibbon, Shane Kingston and Colm Spillane, who returned after recovering from a cruciate knee injury, made a big difference and are continuing to do so.
The established squad members have responded to the burst of energy, leaving Cork in a more promising position than for a long time. They played with a real sense of freedom and enterprise against Tipperary and Waterford and have nudged into the favourites' bay for tomorrow's clash.
That's understandable, since those performances were always going to attract more attention than Clare's elimination of Limerick.
Still, it would be unwise to devalue the Banner's win. For while it wasn't as impressive as Cork's successes, Clare looked as if there was a lot more in them. For instance, Tony Kelly, one of the most gifted hurlers of his generation, made little impression, something which is unlikely to happen again. They also had problems off their puck-outs.
Dónal óg Cusack will, no doubt, have spent the intervening weeks working on that. At the other end, Anthony Nash's accurate deliveries from re-starts have been a feature of Cork's improvement this year.
experienced Clare experienced it last February, with joint-manager Gerry O'Connor acknowledging the problem. "We didn't reset quick enough," he said.
That might be expected early in the league but the jigsaw pieces should be in place by now, including how a team works its own puck-outs and reacts to what's fired at them from the other end.
Shane O'Donnell and Conor McGrath scored 3-5 between them from open play against Limerick, underlining how opportunist they are if they get a good supply. And while the Cork defence has improved on last year, they still conceded 1-26 against Tipp, a giveaway that loses more games than it wins.
If Kelly returns to anything like the force he was during Clare's All-Ireland-winning run in 2013, they can take the Cork defence for enough scores to win the Munster title for the first time since 1998.