Monday 26 February 2018

Rachel Wyse: 'The Banks' to ring out in Croker cauldron

Rebels can claim title if they find rhythm and counter Clare possession game

Cork supporters show their support for Cork manager Jimmy Barry Murphy
Cork supporters show their support for Cork manager Jimmy Barry Murphy

Rachel Wyse

Opinions cost nothing this week. We are all dabbling in the consultancy business. Experts at every turn. Everyone knows who will win tomorrow. Everyone has their own logic. People in Cork and Clare can't and won't hear of defeat.

Rightly so, for if you don't truly believe, then defeat is probably closer to hand than victory. And Croke Park in September is only a place for winners. Brilliant achievements of the summer months quickly fade in the runners-up camp, such is the power of defeat on the greatest hurling stage.

For people who love the game tomorrow has no equal.

We live in times that are constantly changing, in a land all too familiar with falling property values, worthless stocks and shares, and huge losses of wealth. However, through decades of reform, social advancement and recent economic madness, the value of a Celtic cross has never wavered in the Irish psyche.

All-Ireland medals have been cherished in Lory Meagher's time, in Ring's time, in Keher's time and in Carey's time – and they mean just as much today. The players who perform when it matters most are held in the highest esteem for life. People never forget.

Tomorrow, 126 years after Galway and Tipperary did so for the first time, 30 men will take to a field pursuing the same cause, chasing the same dream – All-Ireland final glory.

They will give everything for the honour of their clubs, their county, their people. It's tribal, it's raw and it's what makes GAA people special. In a role yet to be cast there will be a hero – the man who will lead for others to follow.

MENTAL

Who it will be? Well, much will depend on mental preparation.

Only the players themselves know if their heads are right, if their focus is completely on the job.

I doubt if many will have allowed themselves to drift to a place where they try to imagine the feeling of victory, but plenty will have contemplated defeat. It's human nature.

Fear can have a magnetic effect upon the strongest of minds. It is capable of stifling the most able limbs. Those who shine in the 2013 All-Ireland hurling final will be the men who have considered such dark places, but somehow, whether by accident or design, through the naivete of youth or the rationale of logic and experience, manage to escape the clutches of paralysing thoughts.

Cork are not an old team by any means, but I suspect their opponents may well hold an advantage in this area. Clare come to Croke Park with eight U-21s in their ranks, the confidence of youth perhaps providing a shield from dwelling on the enormity of the occasion and potential dejection of defeat.

After 15 minutes tomorrow, we will know if the occasion has got the better of certain individuals and, while there might be plenty to play for after those opening exchanges, if a team is suffering early, it could well set a trend for the remainder of the match. Such was Limerick's fate in the semi-final.

In truth, they never really recovered and found themselves chasing the game for a full 70 minutes. I will be amazed if Clare's next opponents suffer in the same way.

the Rebels are different animals. they are used to being centre stage and more importantly used to winning. These Cork hurlers were reared on stories of great men, they grew up watching teams win All-Irelands. In their locality, in their clubs, Cork players are surrounded by men who have been there and delivered the goods. The game might have changed, but the stakes haven't. Nor has the occasion.

In bad times, tradition can sometimes be an awful burden, but this is anything but a bad week in Cork. And then there is Jimmy Barry-Murphy. The man is an icon, an absolute legend. Class to his fingertips.

It must be a special feeling for Cork hurlers as they listen to their manager address them each night in preparation for tomorrow. One of their city's greatest sons guiding and inspiring in his own unique way another group of Cork men.

The same can be said of his direct opponent Davy Fitzgerald. He was as good a servant on the field as Clare hurling have ever had and rarely let his county down. His demeanour may not find favour with everyone, but there is no doubting his passion for hurling and his desire to be successful. I think he won't rest until he has managed a team to All-Ireland glory.

His time with Waterford provided a glimpse of the Promised Land. This time around, there is a real chance the occasion will be considerably more memorable. Fitzgerald's approach has probably evolved with time, but I suspect his style is suited to men of his own county, men of the same tradition and mentality. Men that grew up to regard him as an icon.

During his rein in Waterford there always appeared to be hesitancy about some of the Waterford players under his care. They couldn't relate to what he was about or where he was coming from.

No such issues exist now as Clare's young players have bought into Fitzgerald's approach without question. Early in the year, when they struggled in the National League, they never wavered from the system of playing an extra man in defence with a view to creating space for their forwards, while engaging in a short- passing, possession-based game.

On occasions, the players looked confounded by the regime, the structure seemed too rigid and appeared to be restricting good hurlers from playing a little more off the cuff. They stuck with their chosen regime and find themselves in an All-Ireland final with a serious momentum aided by the exploits of the county's U-21 team.

So, who will win tomorrow? I think Cork may just shade it.

Even when on top against inferior opposition, the Rebels don't score enough goals to truly bury a team, while Clare's system is designed to encourage shooting for points from out the field. With this in mind, it all points to a game that will be won by the tightest of margins. The role of free-takers will be vital. The return of Brian Murphy should strengthen Cork and their backs won't concede scores easily.

They are all good ball players, but men like Shane O'Neill, Murphy and Christopher Joyce have plenty of steel about them. If the Cork forwards can manufacture space, I believe they will score freely and their skill levels will punish any mistake in the Clare backs.

For all Limerick's deficiencies in the semi-final, Clare conceded plenty of chances to their opponents. If they afford the same generosity tomorrow, there will only be one result.

The match will be won and lost on Cork's ability to find a rhythm and play their game, rather than playing second fiddle to Clare's possession game.

If Cork impose themselves and play to their strengths, I feel they are the better hurlers and tomorrow evening 'The Banks' will ring out for the 31st time.

Irish Independent

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