Tuesday 17 July 2018

Rebels recover to assert their authority

Cork 2-24 Clare 3-19

Darragh Fitzgibbon of Cork in action against Seadna Morey of Clare during the Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Final match between Cork and Clare at Semple Stadium in Thurles, Tipperary. Photo: Sportsfile
Darragh Fitzgibbon of Cork in action against Seadna Morey of Clare during the Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Final match between Cork and Clare at Semple Stadium in Thurles, Tipperary. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Some 40 minutes after the conclusion to this Munster hurling final, John Meyler met his captain Seamus Harnedy in the passage way to their Thurles dressing room beneath the Kinnane Stand.

There was a brief embrace and a nod from the manager. 'Not bad' he suggested with as much understatement as his contention, just minutes earlier to the assembled media, that the game was already done and it was time to move on.

Seamus Harnedy of Cork lifts the trophy after the Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Final match between Cork and Clare at Semple Stadium in Thurles, Tipperary. Photo: Sportsfile
Seamus Harnedy of Cork lifts the trophy after the Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Final match between Cork and Clare at Semple Stadium in Thurles, Tipperary. Photo: Sportsfile

Croke Park has not been a pleasant experience for them on their last two visits there as Munster champions and Meyler was thinking of a remedy.

But before tripping over himself to press on, maybe Meyler should look back and consider their journey, even his journey to the summit in Munster once more.

Just over two years ago in the pouring rain at the same venue they were a mess against Tipperary, uncertain of what tactics to deploy and uncertain of themselves.

They bowed out tamely to Wexford and, true to form, we collectively reached to poor underage and schools returns to draw links as to why Cork just aren't performing.

Cork captain Séamus Harnedy leads his team-mates to the pitch before the Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Round 3 match between Cork and Limerick at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork. Photo: Sportsfile
Cork captain Séamus Harnedy leads his team-mates to the pitch before the Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Round 3 match between Cork and Limerick at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork. Photo: Sportsfile

Since then they've remained unbeaten in eight successive provincial championship games, the last champions under the old format, the first champions under the new format. Whatever has been thrown at them, they've come up with an answer.

Kieran Kingston got the ball rolling last year, Meyler has carried it on impressively over the last two months.

Many doubted him. There wasn't much love for the Munster champions in the weeks before they got their defence underway, few predicted that they would successfully defend their title.

Their fifth successive championship win over Clare, their 11th in 13 games since the turn of the century, was a microcosm of what they've faced all year.

Eight points down at one stage to a rampant Clare side they found a way, just as they found ways to repel the advances of Tipperary and Limerick and to eventually push by Waterford in the round robin series.

When John Conlon nailed his fifth point of the half on 34 minutes, it pushed Clare 2-11 to 0-9 clear, the excitement and expectation palpable among a much greater Clare presence in the 45,364 crowd.

But within a minute, their captain and natural leader Harnedy had plucked an Anthony Nash puck-out, made room for himself as only he can and spotted Luke Meade rushing in to put him in for a goal, the perfect response.

A follow-up point from a Mark Coleman sideline, one of 22 in the game as the ball repeatedly ran out of play on a scorched and penal surface, painted a different reflection on the half than what it should have been.

"We knew we hadn't played great in the first half and getting it from eight points down to four was important," observed Harnedy afterwards. Ultimately those couple of scores prefaced a dominant third quarter for Cork.

"Their half-forward line stormed into the game," observed Clare joint-manager Gerry O'Connor.

"They seemed to get a lot of scores from there.

"That 10 or 15-minute period just after half-time, we missed a few frees, they got a few handy scores and that's just the nature of it, we just weren't able to get a foothold on the game after that."

True, it was a difficult second half for Peter Duggan, so consistent from placed balls all season, as he fluffed his lines on three occasions, the most chastening when he miscued in the 49th minute from close range, barely getting the shot airborne.

But Duggan had been one of the central Clare characters in the first half, getting a touch to a monster Donal Tuohy free for a 32nd minute goal and scoring one of the points of the game as he hugged the Ryan Stand sideline early on.

Yet it was only a walk-on part by comparison to Conlon who continued his rich vein of form early on, scoring four of their first six points.

Cork switched Colm Spillane on to the then unplayable Banner talisman and while a further point was conceded to him, on top of a free for which the Cork corner-back picked up a yellow card, Spillane defended magnificently after that as the supply lines became more scrambled.

From that last Conlon point until deep into injury time, Cork outscored Clare by 2-15 to 0-8 until substitute Ian Galvin got a late consolation goal.

With how much momentum they had early on, it was a spectacular fade from Clare, even allowing for how Cork powered into the game.

For this group of players, many of whom were part of that trio of All-Ireland U-21 successes earlier in the decade, it will feel like their best opportunity to close a 20-year gap since their last Munster title has slipped by.

They'll drive on, Croke Park still evades them after five years. But they do so badly wounded.

What Conlon did for Clare early on, Patrick Horgan and Harnedy were able to replicate for Cork thereafter.

Horgan really kept Cork in touch through that troubling first-half spell when they should have been further adrift.

His ability to turn sharply on to his left yielded two important points stitched into his 0-11 tally.

Clare, not for the first time this season, just couldn't get Tony Kelly into the game.

He scorched the cover to set up David Reidy for their first goal on 17 minutes and got in for a late point but, from what is expected from him, that was a limited return.

Shane O'Donnell found the going tough too, unable to make an impact until he was withdrawn in the 55th minute but David Reidy and later Podge Collins had Cork turning repeatedly.

Clare held it together well defensively in the first half, Conor Cleary, David McInerney and Jack Browne all making telling interceptions, blocks and, in Browne's case, one memorable catch.

The surface, badly marked from the recent hot weather, intensified the pace and that seemed to suit them too. It made for a thrilling spectacle, a throwback occasion after some disappointing recent finals.

But that Cork foothold before half-time was crucial. When Darragh Fitzgibbon, one half of a midfield axis with Bill Cooper that eventually took control, knocked over a quick point on the restart, it served to fuel more hesitancy in Clare when they should have been driving on.

Cork defenders won all the individual battles in the second half. From rookie Sean O'Donoghue's accelerating runs to clear his lines to Coleman's overall poise and control on the right wing they grew impressively and Clare were hanging on.

Daniel Kearney and Cooper set up Harnedy's goal and front that point on, you could really only see one winner.

Physically they had the edge, no one reflecting that more than Harnedy who caught again from a Nash puck-out for a point to remind Clare that there was no way back. Galvin's late goal was little more than window-dressing.

That Clare's only championship win in 20 years against Cork came in the 2013 All-Ireland final replay is still strong consolation but even that is wearing a little thin for these players who are so anxious to address their Munster deficiencies.

For Cork, there is Croke Park redress and their gaze is clearly fixed there. But after fallow underage years their path to senior success is still the shortest.

Scorers - Cork: P Horgan 0-11 (6fs, 1 65), S Harnedy 1-4, L Meade 1-1, D Fitzgibbon, D Kearney, M Coleman ( 1 sl) 0-2 each, B Cooper, C Lehane 0-1 each. Clare: P Duggan 1-7 (0-7fs), J Conlon 0-5, D Reidy 1-2, I Galvin 1-0, P Collins 0-2, T Kelly, C Galvin, C McGrath all 0-1 each.

Cork: A Nash 7; C Spillane 8, D Cahalane 6, S O'Donoghue 8; M Coleman 8, C Joyce 7, E Cadogan 7; D Fitzgibbon 8, B Cooper 7; D Kearney 7, C Lehane 6, L Meade 7; S Kingston 6, P Horgan 8, S Harnedy 9. Subs: R O'Flynn 6 for 14 (59), M Cahalane for Meade (64), L McLoughlin for Kearney (65), D Brosnan for McLoughlin inj (73).

Clare: D Tuohy 7; P O'Connor 6, D McInerney 7, J Browne 7; S Morey 6, C Cleary 7, J Shanahan 7; C Galvin 6, C Malone 5; P Duggan 7, T Kelly 6, D Reidy 8; P Collins 7, J Conlon 8, S O'Donnell 5. Subs: J McCarthy 6 for Malone (50), C McGrath 7 for O'Donnell (55), D Fitzgerald 6 for Shanahan (59), D Corry for Reidy (63), I Galvin for Cleary (68)

Ref - J McGrath (Westmeath)

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