Thursday 22 March 2018

Forget the circus and tune into this fine opera instead

Barry-Murphy and Fitzgerald enter next phase of intense rivalry without usual fanfare after a week of legislators running around as if their hair had caught fire

Clare's Shane O'Donnell in action against Shane O'Neill of Cork in last year's All-Ireland final replay at Croke Park. Photo: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE
Clare's Shane O'Donnell in action against Shane O'Neill of Cork in last year's All-Ireland final replay at Croke Park. Photo: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

In this week's rush to render hurling's rules something of a bad Vaudeville joke, the build-up to tomorrow's business in Thurles has passed by, quieter than a snowfall.

Imagine. Clare v Cork all but secreted into the schedule as our guardians of the game fixate on manacling Anthony Nash to his own goal and outlawing the very opportunism that generations through Ringy and DJ and King Henry considered a superior skill.

Feel a mite cheated? You're not alone. There was such a golden glow to this rivalry from beginning to end of last season, the very least we felt entitled to was a thumping, week-long drum roll. Instead, we got the make-it-up-as-you-go-along comedy of legislators running around as if their hair had caught fire.

Davy Fitz, meanwhile, has been quiet as a church mouse. Jimmy Barry-Murphy just his usual, gentlemanly self. And, so, a game with all the potential to register double digits on a seismograph rolls into town without any real fanfare.

Knowing what they gave to us last summer, that's a bit like bringing the Vienna Philharmonic to Carnegie Hall and neglecting to put up posters.

To reboot the memory then, Clare and Cork met competitively on five occasions last year and, with normal time up in the fifth of those games – the All-Ireland final replay – the aggregate score between them stood at Clare 5-109; Cork 9-94.

In other words, after six hours and 10 minutes of hurling between them, Clare's aggregate was 124 points to Cork's 121. A three-point differential that just happened to be precisely what separated them at that same moment in the game itself. (Clare 4-16; Cork 3-16).

Remember what happened next?

A ball just happening to elude Cathal Naughton in front of the Hill-end goal, Seadna Morey clearing and, seconds later, Darach Honan forcing the sliotar home at the Canal end for Clare's decisive fifth.

Technically, Davy Fitz's men won three of the five meetings. In March, they scored 10 unanswered points in a remarkable second-half surge during their Pairc Ui Rinn league meeting to ease away for a six-point win.

Barry-Murphy admitted afterwards that that spectacle of Cork's fade-out left him concerned. "We were quite comfortable without playing brilliantly, but then they came back and literally ran riot in the second half," he reflected. "We didn't seem to have an answer and that was a worry."


One month later, the teams met again in a Division 1A relegation play-off at the Gaelic Grounds, Pa Cronin's 68th minute goal looking to have secured victory for the Corkmen. But Clare had outscored them 0-10 to 0-1 between Cronin's goal and a 53rd-minute strike by Luke O'Farrell and, sure enough, they rallied again with points from Tony Kelly and Colin Ryan to bring the game to extra-time.

It would take a dramatic 90th-minute Brendan Bugler deflection of Naughton's goal-bound effort over the city-end crossbar for Clare to edge through by two points that day, condemning Cork to relegation for the first time since '97.

This time, Barry-Murphy remained philosophical, reflecting that it had been "anyone's game" and noting how – in his previous incarnation as Cork manager – relegation and its adventurer travels to venues like Trim and Rathdowney hadn't stopped them winning the Liam MacCarthy Cup in '99.

Jimmy would prove as good as his word, too, when the teams met in a Munster championship semi-final in June, Cork availing of a strong second-half wind advantage in Limerick to turn a three-point half-time deficit into a commanding eight-point win. True, they had some luck on their side. Clare spurned a succession of goal opportunities and were less than pleased with the circumstances forcing a concussed John Conlon's exit just 19 minutes in.

That frustration seemed writ large in the second period as they accumulated four bookings inside nine minutes, Cork easing through to their first Munster final since 2010.

We didn't know it then, but these great rivals weren't yet quite ready to shake the habit of one another.

Even now, their two September finals return as magical treasures in the mind. Domhnall O'Donovan was a headline act the first day, scoring that balletic, injury-time equaliser from somewhere in Croke Park that no corner-back should be expected to travel without a visa.

Clare had looked the better team throughout, Cork only registering their first score from play after 32 minutes. Jimmy's men were, we had long since surmised, a cripplingly goal-shy team. They responded, quite naturally, with second-half goals from Conor Lehane, Nash (a 20-metre free) and Pa Cronin.

Then Patrick Horgan arced the kind of elegant winning point that would ennoble any All-Ireland, only for O'Donovan to leave Marty Morrissey in his "Holy Moses" apoplexy up on the seventh floor. Lest we forget, at precisely 3.47 that same day, Patrick Kelly charged down a 20-metre exocet from Nash.

Davy's selection of Shane O'Donnell at full-forward in place of Honan found spectacular early traction in the replay, the Ennis youngster firing past Nash for Hill-end goals in the seventh, 13th and 20th minutes. But the Cork goalie responded with a 20-metre free conversion past 13 Claremen on the Canal-end line and, by the 53rd minute, the teams were actually level (3-10 to 1-16).

What followed belittled the very innocence of punditry.

Clare pulled three points clear; then Seamus Harnedy goaled for Cork. Next Conor McGrath nailed the goal of the year after a billowing 40-yard run for Clare who then stretched six clear: Stephen Moylan followed this by firing another goal for Cork.

And it was then, the whole place whistling like a forgotten kettle, that someone seemed to sneeze in Heaven and a ball that might have changed everything just bounced away from Naughton.

So picture, if you can, Davy Fitzgerald now coming to this new day with the solemnity of Caesar descending upon a battlefield. It shouldn't be hard because that's, largely, how the world imagines Clare's hurling manager. Warrior-like, patrolling his line with the intensity of a crouched lion. Why is he so quiet?

Well it's funny, just two months before he led his team out in Croke Park on the biggest day of the hurling year, Fitzgerald was abused through the Ennis wire by a so-called supporter. The night they beat Laois in a first round qualifier, he was told: "You've Clare hurling ruined you f****r you!"

Davy understands the fickleness of public affection, which might explain his low profile this week. Barry-Murphy knows it too.

In his first incarnation as Cork manager, local media tagged his choice of Tony O'Sullivan and Tom Cashman as a "dream team."

When Limerick subsequently butchered them in the '96 Munster Championship, Jimmy encountered some criticism that he considered "unnecessarily personalised and hurtful."

So, neither was inclined to play PT Barnum this week and who could really blame them?

But their teams set summer ablaze last year and, tomorrow in Thurles, they lock horns once more, this time in search of a crown that their counties both miss and covet. Clare haven't been Munster senior champions since that epochal summer of '98, Cork since 2006.

So, forget this week's circus, tune into tomorrow's opera. And expect Clare and Cork to pick up where they signed off on a gloriously golden autumn Saturday under lights.

Irish Independent

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