Clare have resilience to pounce on rebound
Both teams have much to ponder for the final replay but Clare look stronger, says Jamesie O'Connor
There's an old Chinese proverb that says, "There are many paths to the top of the mountain, but the view is always the same." While neither Clare nor Cork have taken what might be called the conventional route to this year's hurling summit, don't think success next weekend won't make the panorama from the top any less attractive.
In ten years' time, people outside of Limerick and Dublin may struggle to remember who won the provincial titles in 2013. But let me tell you everyone will remember who won the All-Ireland in this incredible hurling season.
Meanwhile, whereas at least Dublin and Limerick have the consolation of those Leinster and Munster medals, the losers next Saturday will end the year empty-handed.
In the fortnight since the drawn game, I wonder how many times the respective managements have watched the match and pored over it in a bid to find clues as to where to hurt the opposition in the replay. However, it's easy to over-analyse. No two games are ever the same, and the psychology and attitude of each player will be influenced to a large extent by how they performed on September 8.
Those who produced the goods, and played well will take huge confidence into next Saturday. Those who didn't play to their potential, especially if well beaten by their direct opponent and more so if they were taken off, should be bursting to make amends. I remember having played really well on Brian Greene in the drawn Munster final with Waterford in 1998. As I took up my position in the replay, full of confidence and looking forward to another big game, I offered my hand for the customary handshake. He shook his head. No handshake. His pride was hurt, and he wasn't long letting me know that today was going to be different. If Clare were to win the match, as we went on to, no one would be pointing the finger in his direction.
From a Clare perspective, with up to ten Cork players arguably underperforming in the drawn match, there are plenty of reasons to be worried. Why that happened had a lot to do with Clare, but I think Cork were expecting to see a sweeper, and had prepared accordingly. In both the quarter- and semi-finals, when Cork had an extra man, their defenders scattered to the perimeters when the ball went dead, meaning Anthony Nash had options and at least one spare defender to puck the ball to.
I assume Cork believed the same facility would be available with the sweeper in play. The extra man at the back would be the outlet from Nash's puck-out, from where Cork could play the ball out, neutralise the sweeper and get the type of ball into their inside forwards they managed against Dublin. When Clare gave them something they weren't expecting tactically, it appeared to Cork's advantage. However, once the ball was thrown in, there was nothing orthodox about the Clare formation, or where their forwards played.
Clare got plenty of bodies in their own half and really condensed the space the Cork forwards had to play in, particularly in that opening 35 minutes. It was only when the Cork half-forwards came further out the field in the second half that there was any space available for the likes of Conor Lehane and Seamus Harnedy to exploit.
It also meant that Nash played right into Clare's hands by going long and persisting with pucking the ball into the Clare half-back line. Twice already this year, in the second half of their first league encounter in Páirc Uí Rinn and in the relegation play-off in Limerick, I watched this sector wipe Cork out, especially under the dropping ball.
In the championship game in June, however, that wasn't allowed to happen. Cork's victory that afternoon had a lot to do with the parity or rather the superiority they achieved in that area.
I assume they didn't see it as a major cause of concern going into the final, but the Clare half-back line was the rock on which Cork's challenge almost perished. The hard stats may reveal that Cork didn't do as badly as our eyes told us, particularly when the ball broke to the ground. However, only Seamus Harnedy of Cork's starting half-forward line ended the match in credit, and even he doesn't emerge fully unscathed considering his direct opponent Conor Ryan was the man of the match.
Dónal óg Cusack interestingly pointed out on The Sunday Game that night that the Clare half-forward line's tactics of going up with the hurley and ensuring the ball came to ground off their puck-out, rather than trying to outfield the Cork half-backs, was a far more effective strategy. Either way, nothing is likely to have exercised the Cork management more than taking away the platform that Ryan, Brendan Bugler and Pat O'Connor provided for Clare to build on.
What Cork will also take a lot of heart from were the dividends they were able to reap once that line was breached and they were running at the Clare full-back line. Goals were never this side's forté, but they scored three and possibly could have had six. No defender enjoys being run at, but there was an element of panic at times in Clare's last line of defence without the sweeper to gobble up that space in front of them. There were at least two occasions when Cork players were taken down needlessly when there were sufficient bodies back to prevent any real goal threat. No more than the Cork puck-out, it's an aspect that Clare will know they have to do better on.
So, if Cork are loaded with self-motivation, and the side with the greater scope for improvement, where does that leave Clare? Is there a fear that as in the relegation play-off, even though they have been the patently better side, Cork still have the scope to cause them problems? Can they play as well again? Most importantly, having scored 25 points and not won, has their opportunity passed?
To answer the last question, I don't think they've left it after them. True, four of Cork's starting forwards didn't perform, but that's primarily down to how little latitude the Clare defence allowed them. Clare have plenty of pace and athleticism at the back, and they know the match-ups they want. They'll feel that if they don't cough up the goal opportunities that kept Cork in the game, are more disciplined and get the free count down, their forwards are good enough at the other end.
That might be a big ask, but they know themselves they can defend better, and at any rate, depending on how the game is balanced, the sweeper still remains a viable option. They may even start with one, but if Clare are ahead going into the last quarter, it'll be a hard call for Davy Fitz not to bring Pat Donnellan back to reprise that role.
Were such a scenario to materialise, Cork will surely have their own plan to counteract it, and at that stage, it will probably come down to who has the greater number of cooler heads making the right decisions on the field.
If Lorcán McLoughlin, Pa Cronin, Luke O'Farrell and the other Cork players who played below par have resolved to do more, Clare too have players who know they weren't at their best in the drawn match.
That's the nature of it. Colm Galvin, and in particular Darach Honan, have plenty of scope for improvement. At midfield, Galvin played second fiddle to Daniel Kearney, but that's something I can't see him allowing to happen again. It's Honan, however, who provides the biggest conundrum. Given his lack of form, and the alternatives available – Shane O'Donnell and Cathal McInerney are two viable options – Clare may not even start him.
Nonetheless, and he should be burning to get back out on Shane O'Neill, he remains a significant threat. Because a goal or two would help Clare's cause no end, they could also do with getting Conor McGrath closer to goal. McGrath had more plays than anybody else on the field in the drawn match, indicative of how hard he worked. He got two good points, but a lot of that energy was expended out the field and a long way from goal.
I would love to see him isolated in the type of space Honan had, on someone other than O'Neill, and by engineering that type of match-up, Clare could reap a real dividend.
Before the drawn match, I was quietly confident Clare would win. That confidence has been shaken a little, but man for man, I still think they have the better players. They should have won a fortnight ago, but to rescue a draw in the manner they did showed the type of resilience that's required to win the All-Ireland.
Admittedly, the same argument could be made for Cork, but after what this hurling year has given us, it simply can't end with one of the big three walking off with the silverware. I'm keeping the faith. Clare to win.