Cork's horizons broadened by Munster triumph
Cork 1-25 Clare 1-20 Munster SHC final
A year ago to the day, Cork supporters were dripping with despondency as they trudged out of Semple Stadium after watching their side outmanoeuvred by Wexford in an All-Ireland qualifier.
Yesterday, they lined up in their thousands to sing 'The Banks' as captain Stephen McDonnell proudly hoisted the Munster championship trophy after Kieran Kingston's revitalised forces had dealt effectively with Clare's challenge.
Truly, a remarkable turnaround and now the Rebels will dare to dream that a first All-Ireland title win for 12 years is achievable. They may well be right as they continue on an upward curve that looked highly improbable after producing a listless performance when losing to Limerick in the Allianz League quarter-final in early April.
It left them fifth of five in the Munster betting, with the vast majority of the hurling world believing that they would be qualifier-bound after the quarter-final clash with Tipperary.
Instead, they stunned the All-Ireland champions and followed up with another against-the-odds success over Waterford, before showing yesterday that they are equally comfortable with the favourites' rating.
But then they seem comfortable with every aspect of their game, calmly working their way through various problems as they arise.
Yesterday's big test came in the final quarter when, after leading by 1-16 to 0-12 after 52 minutes, they were faced with a Clare backlash.
A goal by Conor McGrath (54 mins) and two points by Tony Kelly cut the Cork lead to two points, offering Clare hope that they had timed their effort to perfection.
The momentum was behind them and with their supporters in the 45,558 crowd in full voice, it looked as if the Munster title might be Banner-bound for the first time since 1998.
Cork's response was impressive. They kept their nerve and were five points clear by the 66th minute and while Clare cut the deficit back to two points entering stoppage time, Cork finished better, adding three more points.
Patrick Horgan was on target from a free and open play and Alan Cadogan fired over a long-range point.
It was appropriate that this pair closed out the deal for Cork as they had run a campaign of mayhem against the Clare defence all day.
Horgan scored 0-13 (0-10 frees), making him Cork's record championship scorer, while Cadogan hit 1-4, the goal coming in the 12th minute when he sped past Oisin O'Brien before beating Andrew Fahy.
Cadogan had shown he was switched on right from the start, popping over the opening point in the first minute.
With O'Brien, who was replaced after 33 minutes, struggling against the Douglas man, it left Clare with a problem that they never really solved.
Apart from replacing O'Brien, they undertook further repair work at half-time, sending David Reidy in for Podge Collins and withdrawing captain Patrick O'Connor early in the second-half. It was a triple upheaval they would not have bargained for.
Cork, in contrast, stayed with their original 15 until the 57th minute, a sign of how comfortable they were, with individual performances and the effectiveness of their tactical set-up.
Clare regularly conceded possession off Anthony Nash's short puck-outs, allowing the Cork full-back to fire long deliveries to their attack.
And with Cadogan, Horgan and Seamus Harnedy using their craft to maximum effect, the Clare defence was under intense pressure.
Cork had some shaky moments in their own goal area and should have paid a heavier price when Shane O'Donnell was hauled down in the square in the 19th minute.
Tony Kelly took the penalty, driving it over the bar when a goal would have given them the lead.
Still, they were level after 20 minutes, before Cork made a decisive break, scoring five unanswered points, helping them to a lead of 1-10 to 0-8 at half-time.
Cork increased their lead in the third quarter, a period which will figure prominently in Clare's debrief.
They won lots of possession but their long-range shooting was regularly off target. Supplying the full-forward line might have been the better option, as they discovered when McGrath drove in their goal.
By then, they had wasted quite a few chances, setbacks they could not afford against more economical opposition.
For all that, Clare gave themselves every chance when cutting the deficit to two points late on, only to become the latest to discover that Cork's growing maturity is a mighty weapon.
The defensive side of their game, which was a consistent problem last year, has solidified significantly. Newcomers Colm Spillane and Mark Coleman have made a big difference, not only in shoring up the left side but also in beginning attacking drives.
- Read more - Jamesie O'Connor: It pains me to say it, but the return of Cork's swagger has been a real breath of fresh air
Coleman is still five months short of his 20th birthday but already looks like a man who has been around for several seasons.
He's growing in stature by the game and decorated a fine performance yesterday with two excellent points, one from a delightfully taken line-ball.
Full-back Damien Cahalane has had his critics but is much-improved this summer. His confidence levels are rising too as he showed late on when running half the length of the pitch to initiate a move that ended with Horgan scoring a superb point from the right wing.
Midfielder Darragh Fitzgibbon and forwards Luke Meade and Shane Kingston are also impressive newcomers.
Conor Lehane was quieter than against Tipperary or Waterford but with his colleagues on their game, Cork didn't need him on full throttle.
Whatever the origins, there's something very different about Cork this summer. And with the All-Ireland race looking more open than for quite some time, they have every reason to be confident as they look towards Croke Park next month.
Clare are not out of the equation either. They will play Waterford or Tipperary in the All-Ireland quarter-final and while they will need to improve on yesterday to give themselves a decent chance, they are well capable of doing that .
Scorers - Cork: P Horgan 0-13 (10f), A Cadogan 1-4, S Harnedy, M Coleman (1 l/b) 0-2 each, C Lehane, D Fitzgibbon, S Kingston, L Meade 0-1 each. Clare: T Kelly 0-10 (6f, 1 pen), C McGrath 1-1, J Conlon 0-2, S Morey, P Collins, A Shanagher, D McInerney, C Galvin, A Cunningham, J McCarthy 0-1 each.
Cork - A Nash 7; S McDonnell 7, D Cahalane 7, C Spillane 7; C Joyce 7, M Ellis 7, M Coleman 8; B Cooper 6, D Fitzgibbon 7; S Harnedy 7, C Lehane 6, S Kingston 6; A Cadogan 9, P Horgan 8, L Meade 7. Subs: D Kearney 7 for Kingston (57), L O'Farrell 7 for Fitzgibbon (60), M Cahalane for Meade (66).
Clare - A Fahy 6; S Morey 6, D McInerney 7, O O'Brien 5; P O'Connor 5, C Cleary 6, D Fitzgerald 6; C Galvin 6, C Malone 6; T Kelly 7, P Collins 5, J Conlon 7; S O'Donnell 6, A Shanagher 6, C McGrath 7. Subs: J McCarthy 6 for O'Brien (33), D Reidy 7 for Collins (h-t), C Dillon 6 for O'Connor (42), A Cunningham 5 for Shanagher (59), P Duggan for Malone (66).
Ref - F Horgan (Tipperary).