All-Ireland SHC Final Preview
Cork v Clare, Croke Park, 3.30
Who would have thought? Clare and Cork join hands for the last dance of the year. After a long stretch of Kilkenny dominating the floor, virtually unaccompanied, the goalposts have shifted and it is safe and acceptable to talk of other options. Youth and tactics flavour the autumn conversation ahead of this pitting of wits. The championship has been a breath of fresh air and closes with a fittingly unflagged and unpredictable finale.
Three years ago, a Tipperary All-Ireland win was hailed as a form of romantic salvation. Imagine that. But such was Kilkenny's supremacy and might that Tipperary looked a plaintive case by comparison. Back roared Kilkenny, defiantly, to claim two more titles. Galway threatened but fell short. Tipp collapsed. Last September ultimately had the same epilogue.
There are signs the field is widening again, with favourable comparisons to the 1990s when hurling declared an open revolution. That optimism comes with a warning that Kilkenny's decline this year is not terminal. Injuries debilitated them. Still, they are not the virtually infallible oppressor of old. How the picture has changed since Davy Fitzgerald last brought a team to an All-Ireland senior final in 2008.
Some small signs had been emerging along the way. In 2009, a week after they completed the four-in-a-row, Kilkenny lost an under 21 final to Clare. They took the loss charitably and Clare derived great joy from the day, not least because they had defeated a Kilkenny team in a tight finish. Some of the roots of this year's run can be traced to there. Clare look set to complete the year, irrespective of today's outcome, with a third under 21 in five years and the style of their play, whatever about the structure, is hard not to applaud and admire. It is a break from the traditional form. It is a trust in hurling in the purest sense, the logical evolution for any team with aspirations to reach the top and not be a sporadic player.
They bring a laudable skill set to Croke Park today, what Fr Harry Bohan has said is the most skilful assembly to ever leave Clare. Skilful but not, as yet, the most successful. They approach from a promising angle but Cork have a tradition and a confidence that comes with it, even if this team has not been entirely trusted or understood by the public at large. They go in as marginal favourites but they must beat Clare twice in the space of a few months.
Clare's dispiriting defeat to Cork, by eight points, in Munster led to much soul-searching and a tweaking of the system of play. They have been improving ever since. They regained their strength in the qualifiers and made their statement against Galway. The Tribesmen are not what they were, it'll be noted, but the Clare team was ready and carried their momentum on past Limerick.
Limerick missed so much and Colin Ryan's striking was impeccable that a diminution in conversion rate and a more clinical opposition – neither inconceivable – spells a worry for Clare's chances. But the win brings them on and they are a team not short on confidence. Tony Kelly has retreated to midfield and Conor Ryan worked as a conventional centre-back, leaving Patrick Donnellan to sweep. In the Munster semi-final Brian Murphy took up Kelly and helped minimise his influence but Clare had goal chances and their shooting was not as precise as it has been in recent matches.
Murphy is back in the team after an injury, having hurled for his club two weeks ago. He has experience of playing in the middle of the field. How far Cork's spare man, likely to be Conor O'Sullivan, wanders remains to be seen. The risk of leaving Darach Honan and Conor McGrath one-to-one in a two-man inside line is something they will have mulled over.
Neither team has shown itself to be a goalscoring machine and the evidence so far indicates a point-scoring shootout. Fitzgerald is likely to try some tactical ploy to get at the weaker points of the Cork defence, where Christopher Joyce may be targeted. Stephen McDonnell has also had question marks over him, but is developing into a better player. Clare's rearguard has also looked suspect at different times.
What will decide it? The form of Podge Collins and Kelly is persuasive and there is potential in other areas of the Clare attack yet to be fully realised. Clare might have more goals in them, with Honan and McGrath the primary threats. In a match impossible to judge with absolute conviction, that might make the difference, the odd green flag in three.
Cork: A Nash; S McDonnell, S O'Neill, C O'Sullivan; B Murphy, C Joyce, W Egan; L McLoughlin, D Kearney; S Harnedy, P Cronin, C Lehane; L O'Farrell, P Horgan, J Coughlan.
Clare: P Kelly; D O'Donovan, D McInerney, C Dillon; B Bugler, P Donnellan, P O'Connor; Conor Ryan, C Galvin; J Conlon, T Kelly, Colin Ryan; P Collins, D Honan, C McGrath.
Referee: B Gavin (Offaly)
Odds: Cork 5/6; Draw 10/1; Clare 11/8
Paths to Croke Park
Munster SHC quarter-final: Clare 2-20 Waterford 1-15
Munster semi-final: Cork 0-23 Clare 0-15
All-Ireland Qualifiers: Clare 1-32 Laois 0-15
All-Ireland Qualifiers: Clare 3-24 Wexford 1-20 (aet)
All-Ireland quarter-final: Clare 1-23 Galway 2-13
All-Ireland semi-final: Clare 1-22 Limerick 0-18
Munster SHC semi-final: Cork 0-23 Clare 0-15
Munster final: Limerick 0-24 Cork 0-15
All-Ireland quarter-final: Cork 0-19 Kilkenny 0-14
All-Ireland semi-final: Cork 1-24 Dublin 1-19
TOP 3 Scorers
Clare: Colin Ryan 0-51 (0-38f, 0-6 '65), T Kelly 0-16 (0-1 pen), P Collins 0-15.
Cork: P Horgan 1-30 (0-20f), S Harnedy 0-9, P Cronin 0-7, C Lehane 0-7.