Cork don't have ability to back up unwavering belief
Clare look too strong for Barry-Murphy's weakened side, writes Jamesie O'Connor
A broken arm sustained against Tipp three weeks earlier meant the 1999 Munster final was the first championship match I missed through injury. We were playing a Cork team we had steamrolled the previous year, but it was obvious they were a coming force and we knew we'd have a battle on our hands.
Rebels' manager Jimmy Barry-Murphy – who had already introduced new blood, including Seán óg ó hAilpín, Diarmuid O'Sullivan, Seanie McGrath and Joe Deane, in the previous couple of years –really rolled the dice this time, putting his faith completely in the younger Cork players who were coming through.
In came Dónal óg Cusack, Wayne Sherlock, Mickey O'Connell and Ben O'Connor, all of whom had underage pedigree and went on to distinguish themselves in the Cork jersey. Young and inexperienced they might have been, but there was a confidence and cockiness to them that I don't think any other county would have had.
I remember Niall Gilligan telling me after the game that during the pre-match parade, Cusack was exhorting his colleagues repeatedly shouting the words "we're Cork" as the teams made their way around. While they mightn't have had magical powers, the young Cork players believed that those words meant something. After all, they were used to winning, and grew up on a diet of regular All-Ireland success at colleges, minor, under 21 and senior level.
That winning tradition, and the mentality and the self belief it fosters, counts for something when the game is on the line in the final quarter. Even though we were the ones with the All-Ireland medals and All Stars, once they got a sniff of victory, there were no doubts or question marks in their minds holding them back.
Back at the helm a second time, Barry-Murphy's first year was by and large a very positive one. A league final appearance (chastening and all as the experience was against Kilkenny) and a five-point defeat to Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final would have left the Cork management with plenty of encouragement that they had something to build on. In normal circumstances, the off season would have been spent trawling the county for new talent, and looking at where and how the team could be improved. Unfortunately, that upgrading process has been impeded by the decisions of Eoin Cadogan and Damien Cahalane to concentrate exclusively on football as well as the loss of Darren Sweetnam to rugby. Seán óg's retirement would have been anticipated, and given their association with the strikes that polarised opinions within the county's hurling fraternity, one can understand management's thinking on dispensing with the services of fellow veterans John Gardiner and Dónal óg.
However, Paudie O'Sullivan's broken leg, and the injuries and health issues that rob them of Lorcan McLoughlin, and to a lesser extent captain Pa Cronin, compound matters further. In addition, the search for new talent hasn't thrown up too many new faces, and the county's lack of underage success means JBM has nothing like the same calibre of young talent to call on that he had over a decade ago. All things considered, it's very hard to conclude that Cork are a superior side to the one that took the field last year.
That there hasn't been a peep out of the Cork camp in the last 10 weeks since they lost the relegation play-off game to today's opponents, hasn't gone unnoticed in Clare. With the focus firmly elsewhere, the Rebels have had the advantage of being able to quietly go about their work and last year proved that JBM knows how to have his players ready to play championship hurling. It's easily forgotten that Cork played really well and came very close to ending Tipp's reign as Munster champions in the provincial semi-final and the big-game experience in Croke Park last year has to stand to them as well.
Having lost to Clare three times already this year, there's bound to be a feeling in Cork that it simply can't happen on a fourth occasion. I was at both the league game between the sides in Páirc Uí Rinn when Cork were coasting up to half-time but were then blown away by Clare in the second half, and the relegation play-off when Clare hit 24 wides and still managed to win.
On both occasions, the Clare half-back line laid the foundations for victory, and combating their influence is the key to Cork's chances. Clare won 35 Cork puckouts in the relegation game, which is a horrendous statistic if you're looking at it from a Cork perspective. Much thought will have gone into how they address that issue, and Cronin's absence, at least from the start, doesn't help. Yet, despite being destroyed on their own puckout, they were somehow two points clear heading into stoppage time and probably feel that they should have won the game.
That alone should furnish them with the belief they can win. Another positive is that Conor Lehane seems to have found his form, and Cork have finishers close to goal in both Patrick Horgan and Luke O'Farrell, if the opportunities present themselves. Cork will need that trio to go well to have a chance, but they do present a goalscoring threat. Shane O'Neill also returns after missing the relegation playoff. He's a top-class defender and with Jamie Coughlan, Cathal Naughton and possibly Cronin to come off the bench, Cork will feel they have the players to make an impact.
With Limerick's win over Tipperary completely changing the complexion of the Munster championship, it has inevitably meant there's been a lot of loose talk in Clare about the Munster final. None of it has emanated from within the camp, where they know this game is fraught with danger, but with such a young side, it can't have been easy for the Clare management to completely inoculate the Clare players from its effects.
Clare are improving though, and when the questions were asked away to Cork in the league, in that relegation play-off and especially in the championship opener against Waterford, they found the answers. Twelve or 13 of the side now automatically pick themselves, and the youngsters in their first full season – Tony Kelly, David McInerney, Colm Galvin and Shane O'Donnell – will all benefit from having a game under their belts.
If there's a criticism, it's that I still don't think they're getting enough ball to their inside forwards, nor are they scoring enough goals. The two against Waterford was the first time since March 2012 that Clare scored more than one goal in a competitive match, and there was an element of luck about both of them. While there was far less wayward shooting than at times during the league, Kelly in particular still hit a couple of crazy wides from way out the field, balls that should have been directed to Conor McGrath, Darach Honan and O'Donnell in Clare's inside line. This trio have class, and it worries me that Clare aren't getting them on the ball, in good positions, half often enough.
Just like 1999, Cork won't have any fears or hang-ups going into today's game. However, many of the current Cork players don't have the same natural talent or underage pedigree as their predecessors. In fact, the Clare players are the ones with the Munster minor and All-Ireland under 21 medals in their back pockets. It should be a battle to the finish, but Clare look to have too much quality, and I expect them to get the job done.
After two dreadfully poor games with Wexford, expectations are far lower and more realistic in the Dublin camp heading into today's game with Kilkenny than they would have been a year ago. Then, Dublin's progress merited Kilkenny's full focus and respect, and with the Cats up for it to that extent, and Dublin failing to perform, the game was over after 20 minutes.
Kilkenny aren't likely to be as exercised this afternoon, and any player who saw either of those games with Wexford has to be thinking they've nothing to worry about. To be fair to the Dubs, there was an element of rust, particularly in Wexford Park, and they were much better at home last Saturday evening. They have players in form, the defence was solid, and those games will bring them on. The fact they're still not scoring enough goals and struggle to see the possession they win reflected on the scoreboard is an ongoing concern, but I think we'll see a much better performance out of them today.
Trying to gauge where Kilkenny are at is difficult. Obviously with the quality they have, especially in attack, it's inconceivable to see anything other than a comfortable win. Yet, they have injuries to a couple of key players, and the four goals Offaly scored will have given Galway, Tipp and the other contenders looking for signs that all the mileage is starting to take its toll, a little bit of hope.
Kilkenny will win, but if Dublin show up, as I think they will, it will be a lot more competitive than a year ago.