Big-game pedigree tips scales for Rebels
The big news from the hurling championship on June 23 last was not that Cork had beaten Clare, but that Dublin had held Kilkenny to a draw.
Were Cody's champions wilting? That question topped the intrigue list, followed by whether Galway were in real trouble or merely timing their run cleverly. There was also the debate on whether resurgent Limerick were the real deal and how Tipperary would fare in the All-Ireland qualifiers.
Eleven weeks later, Cork and Clare are the only ones still standing, having expanded considerably to a stage where they are eminently qualified to provide the centrepiece on hurling's biggest day.
If Cork provided Clare with their only setback, Limerick handed Jimmy Barry-Murphy's men a test of their revival capabilities when beating them by nine points in the Munster final.
Admittedly, there were extenuating circumstances for Cork, who were without the dismissed Patrick Horgan for the second half. Effectively, it meant that Cork had not been tested on their true merits, which encouraged them heading into the All-Ireland quarter-final.
There's no doubting these teams' right to be regarded as the top two. Cork beat 2012 All-Ireland champions Kilkenny and current Leinster kingpins Dublin, while Clare dismissed last year's beaten finalists Galway and current Munster champions Limerick.
Having established their credentials, the big test now for both sides is to take the even more difficult step of winning the title. Reaching a final is one thing, but crossing the class line that separates champions from contenders is an altogether more demanding challenge. Both sides have the opportunity to do that, but ultimately there is only one top spot and, on this occasion, I believe it will be filled by Cork.
Two nagging doubts surround Clare. Firstly, the quality of opposition they beat in the All-Ireland quarter and semi-finals. And secondly, their young team have reached the final ahead of schedule, which could leave them vulnerable.
Nobody could query the efficiency which Clare brought to their wins over Galway and Limerick. However, questions arise about the quality of the opposition offered by Galway, whose performance levels this year were down on last year, and Limerick, who left their Munster championship form at home in the Gaelic Grounds.
Cork beat better opposition in Kilkenny and Dublin. Kilkenny were not the power of previous times, but, having beaten Tipperary and Waterford, found Cork an altogether different proposition.
Granted, the dismissal of Henry Shefflin tipped the balance in Cork's direction, but they were going better than Kilkenny prior to that anyway.
And while Dublin brought their 'A' game to the semi-final, Cork trumped it. There's also the matter of Cork's eight-point win over Clare last June. The margin flattered Cork, who were helped enormously by Clare's wasted goal chances, but nevertheless, the Rebels coped very well with their rivals' game plan.
Davy Fitzgerald will, no doubt, be armed with a range of alternative strategies, but they can only work if Clare are permitted to set the agenda, as they were against Galway and Limerick. Cork are unlikely to allow that to happen.
That's why it may be advantage Cork. Their point-taking against Dublin was of the highest order, whether from the free-taking of Patrick Horgan and Anthony Nash to the impressive striking by Conor Lehane, Lorcan McLoughlin, Luke O'Farrell and Seamus Harnedy.
Clare have their hot marksmen too in free-taker Colin Ryan, Tony Kelly and Podge Collins, but will they get as many opportunities as they did so far? Ryan pointed frees against Galway and Limerick, having notched just one in the Munster semi-final, as Cork kept the foul rate down.
That will again be a central part of their approach, since Ryan is such a deadly finisher.
Horgan is equally accurate, so the Clare defence will need to reduce the free concession rate in order to avoid giving away easy scores.
Cork have the advantage of being a county with a massive All-Ireland pedigree. It won't score for them tomorrow, but it will embolden the players, giving them extra confidence as keepers of the Rebel brand that has enjoyed so many great occasions on All-Ireland final days.
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, J McInerney, C Dillon; B Bugler, P Donnellan, P O'Connor; C Galvin, Conor Ryan; J Conlon, T Kelly, Colin Ryan; P Collins, D Honan, C McGrath.
Cork v Clare,
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