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Mullane unable to part Cork's red sea

CORK 3-16 WATERFORD 3-12 JOHN MULLANE will wake up this morning feeling as if he won the Lotto but mislaid the ticket.

The Waterford corner-forward delivered the near-perfect performance in yesterday's Guinness Munster hurling final at Semple Stadium but still had to watch through bewildered eyes afterwards as Cork captain Alan Browne waved the trophy in joyous celebration of another great Leeside triumph.

The game may not register very highly on the hit parade of epic Munster finals - it was too error-ridden to come anywhere close - but that's irrelevant to a Cork squad which went into the summer campaign under unprecedented pressure after striking for better conditions last December. Another season of unfulfilled promise would have left them open to taunts of being soft-willed posers rather than genuine contenders.

It was a heavy burden to take into the championship but they responded with so much composure and conviction that neither Clare nor Waterford could survive against them. Cork's satisfaction will be increased by the fact that they won the two Munster games in contrasting circumstances, squeezing the resistance from Clare with an early flourish while having to battle back from a seven-point deficit yesterday.

Cork's ability to vary their game really is a potent weapon in their All-Ireland march and while they now have to wait almost six weeks for the semi-final, they will do so in a confident mood which will be noted by all the other contenders.

Waterford, meanwhile, have to re-group for a qualifier game next Saturday week and while they are still likely to have a big impact on the season, it won't be achieved without some serious self-analysis.

In particular, they must address their inability to exploit their periods of dominance with greater ruthlessness. They led Cork by 1-8 to 1-1 after 20 minutes yesterday and had built up such a powerful momentum that it looked likely that they would take a 10-point lead at least into half-time.

Waterford were playing with a fairly stiff wind and if they had turned over ten points ahead, it would have left Cork facing an altogether different challenge, both mentally and physically. Instead, Cork trailed by five points at the interval (1-9 to 1-4), a lead which was wiped out in the first eight minutes of the second half.

The remaining 27 minutes were a hectic blur of fury and intensity and while the error rate on both sides was quite high, the sheer drama made it a hugely enjoyable experience for the crowd of 52,833.

Cork struck for home with a pointed '65 by John Gardiner to take the lead in the in the 46th minute but were stunned by Waterford's reply two minutes later when Paul Flynn's quick-thinking over a free saw him tap the ball to Mullane who blasted in his second goal past a static defence.

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Cork's response was quick and devastating. Ben O'Connor, who had a wonderful second half, pointed twice before Alan Browne drove in Cork's second goal in the 52nd minute to re-open a three-point gap.

Waterford faced another massive test and, once again, they had the answer in the form of Mullane's third goal in the 55th minute. Level again.

The game was rapidly reaching the defining period and it was Cork who got through for the vital goal in the 58th minute when Joe Deane plucked a long drive from Mark Prendergast out of the air ahead of his marker, scooted in from the left and drove the ball to the net.

Browne's point put them four clear and while Waterford twice pared it back to two points, late strikes from Ben O'Connor and John Gardiner guaranteed Cork their first Munster title since 2000.

It was all so disappointing for Waterford's whose misery was deepened when Paul Flynn was sent off for a second bookable offence deep in injury time. Flynn had contributed four points (0-3 from play) and had also set up Mullane cleverly for the second goal but he never quite managed to exert the same influence as he did in both games against Limerick.

It was even more frustrating for Ken McGrath, whose shooting skills completely deserted him. He won plenty of possession, especially when he moved out to midfield, but drove five wides from play and another from a free on a day he will be keen to banish from the memory.

Mullane was the only Waterford forward who constantly worried the Cork defence. And how! From the moment he skipped past Diarmuid O'Sullivan in the ninth minute to score Waterford's opening goal, it was clear that he would emerge as a substantial influence.

That goal cancelled out Setanta Ó hAilpín's sixth minute effort and launched Waterford into their most productive period. There was a delightful fluency to everything they did as they pressed forward, forcing Cork into early defensive adjustments which saw Mark Prendergast replace Diarmuid O'Sullivan, while Wayne Sherlock was sent across to mark Mullane.

Waterford didn't shoot their first wide for 26 minutes, by which stage they led by seven points, having held Cork scoreless for 15 minutes. It really was a worrying time for Cork but, to their credit, they held their nerve while also making a desperate grab for stability.

The supply line to Mullane was disrupted and, crucially, Cork outscored Waterford by 0-3 to 0-1 in the final eight minutes of the first half. Those Cork points may have lacked the swagger and flamboyance of some of their second half finishes but they were just as important as they kept Waterford in check without doing anything particularly special.

The half-time talk-in was obviously productive for Cork as they hit the second half with considerable pace and immense power which knocked Waterford back.

Cork half-backs, Tom Kenny, Ronan Curran and Seán Óg Ó hAilpín grew with the increasing demands while John Gardiner asserted himself around midfield.

Ben O'Connor, Niall McCarthy led the galloping charge from the half-forward line while full-forwards, Deane, Browne and Ó hAilpín posed tricky questions inside. They finished on 3-3 between them from play and while Mullane almost managed that on his own for Waterford, he lacked genuine support.

Still, one wonders how much more he might have achieved if better ball been directed into him in the second half. Cork's deliveries were much better and once they sensed that Waterford's grip was being prised off the Munster crown, they weren't going to be denied.

SCORERS - Cork: J Deane 1-4 (2f); A Browne 1-1; B O'Connor (1 line ball), J Gardiner (2f, 1 '65) 0-4 each; Setanta O hAilpin 1-0; N McCarthy 0-2; T Kenny 0-1. Waterford: J Mullane 3-1; P Flynn (1f), D Bennett (2f) 0-4 each; E Kelly, E McGrath, T Browne 0-1 each.

CORK - D Og Cusack 6; W Sherlock 7, P Mulcahy 7, D O'Sullivan 5; T Kenny 8, R Curran 8, Sean Og O hAilpin 7; J Gardiner 7, M O'Connell 5; B O'Connor 8, N McCarthy 7, T McCarthy 6; Setanta O hAilpin 7, J Deane 8, A Browne 7. Sub: M Prendergast 6 for O'Sullivan (15), J O'Connor for O'Connell (66).

WATERFORD - S Brenner 6; B Greene 8, T Feeney 6, D Prendergast 7; J Murray 7, F Hartley 7, E Murphy 6; T Browne 7, D Bennett 7; E Kelly 6, K McGrath 6, A Moloney 5; J Mullane 9, P Flynn 7, E McGrath 6. Subs: S Prendergast 6 for Moloney (46), P O'Brien 6 for Kelly (53), P Queally 6 for Browne (60), A Kirwan for Hartley (62), M Walsh for E McGrath (67).

REF - P O'Connor (Limerick).

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