Friday 18 January 2019

Jamesie O'Connor: Rebels will have a big say in the title destination but Clare's need is greater now

Cork's Conor Lehane. Photo: Sportsfile
Cork's Conor Lehane. Photo: Sportsfile

Jamesie O'Connor

For a side that's unbeaten in their last seven Munster Championship matches going back over a two-year period, the Cork hurlers must be wondering what they have to do to get some respect outside their own county.

All the talk after the conclusion of the group phase in the province seemed to be about Clare's re-emergence as All-Ireland contenders, especially after the wins over Tipperary and Limerick. Cork, on the other hand, if not quite an afterthought, haven't garnered anything like the same attention. It's as if their credentials are somehow less worthy. That's despite answering most of the questions they have been asked this summer, and along with Galway, being the only other side yet to lose a match in this year's championship.

People, myself included, had wondered whether this side possessed the resilience and guts to tough it out when things weren't going to plan. Well they have given their response to that in every game so far. Clare drew level after Tony Kelly's goal with ten minutes left in the championship opener in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, and appeared perfectly positioned to go on and win. Yet the Rebels were the ones who finished stronger with goals from Conor Lehane and Seamus Harnedy to close out a five-point victory. Tipperary had all the momentum in the second half in Thurles a week later, but they responded, kicked on again and the home side were the ones scrambling to get the equaliser before the final whistle.

They had just six days to recover for Limerick the following Saturday, their third game in 13 days, with their opponents fresh and rested coming off the bye week. They didn't play well, were three points down late in the second half, but again clawed back the lead, and it was Limerick who had to secure the draw.

Finally, when Waterford led with just minutes left in their concluding fixture, they again summoned the right response - a goal from Harnedy and a brace of points to secure their place in today's final.

Nerve, composure, resilience - there's the evidence. It's also a sign of the team's maturity. The fact that they've kept their heads and taken the right options, especially in the last ten minutes of matches when the pressure is really on, augurs well for Cork's future.

The team's strength remains up front. They are averaging over 27 points a game. We've known for years how good Patrick Horgan, Seamus Harnedy and Conor Lehane can be, but they are now performing at those very high levels on a far more consistent basis. Obviously, Alan Cadogan is a loss, especially considering the damage he inflicted on Clare 12 months ago, but Daniel Kearney's form at wing forward, where he's been one of Cork's three best players, has compensated. Kearney was outstanding against the Banner last time round, dropping deep, working incredibly hard, and giving Donal Moloney and Gerry O'Connor a tactical headache they probably hadn't anticipated.

Defensively, Mark Ellis is a loss and the criticism that Cork still concede far too many scores to go all the way is a valid one. However, only Dublin conceded fewer goals than the Rebels in the round robin phase, and if that standard can be maintained, Cork will fancy their chances of outpointing anybody, Galway included.

The challenge Cork face today, though, is a very different one to that of six weeks ago. Clare have evolved considerably since the sides met in May, and are coming in with three big championship wins under their belts for the first time since 2013.

They have found form and momentum at just the right time and the alterations to the side, particularly to the central spine of the attack with John Conlon at full-forward and Tony Kelly on the 40, has made a significant difference. Conlon was superb in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, hitting five points from play at centre forward. However, he's been a revelation since moving to the edge of the square and given Clare a completely different attacking dimension. They can now be far more direct given his presence and ball-winning ability.

Damien Cahalane coped comfortably with Peter Duggan last time out, but Conlon is an entirely different proposition. Cork's full-back has struggled with big men before - particularly Seamus Callanan, and was taken off Seamus Flanagan in the Limerick match. I wouldn't be shocked if Eoin Cadogan ends up picking up Conlon, with Cahalane elsewhere, possibly even on Kelly, but it's a key battle that could decide the outcome.

Accounting for Kelly is another potential headache that John Meyler has to get right. Bill Cooper has had a good record on Clare's talisman when he operated at midfield. At centre forward, that's not an option, and another sub-plot that makes this game so interesting. What plans have Clare in place for Anthony Nash's puckout? Can Cork exploit Jamie Shanahan's lack of pace? Will he be the one picking up Kearney and, if so, does he hold his position and trust those further up the field to limit the Corkman's influence?

Will Cathal Malone pick up Darragh Fitzgibbon and, having curbed both Jamie Barron and Cian Lynch, do a similar job this afternoon? I could write pages on this stuff and if there was ever a 50-50 game, this is it.

The fact that Clare had so many regrets from last year's Munster final still rankles with the players. Their lack of aggression and intensity on the day. Their aimlessness in attack, the wild shooting from distance, plus the reality that they didn't take their chances and atone for it back in May.

It's hard to beat the same team twice in the championship and that's the challenge for Cork. They won't lack for motivation and regardless of what happens this afternoon, will have a big say in the All-Ireland series. Clare's need is greater though. Assuming Peter Duggan keeps nailing the frees and the defence maintains the same rate of improvement, that might just be enough.

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