Cork ready to complete unexpected route to the title
Relegated in the spring, Barry-Murphy’s men have enough momentum to see off emerging Clare
Patrick Horgan is one of the many good reasons to believe Cork can defeat Clare on Sunday. Photograph: Inpho
If there has been a longer-odds final pairing in All-Ireland hurling history it’s hard to identify. That however comes from the perspective of late spring and early summer with memories of the league final between Kilkenny and Tipperary - not so much its breathless quality but the very fact of it – fresh in people’s minds.
Another influence from four months ago was that these finalists had contested the Division One A relegation play-off. For all Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s insouciant citing of the past when Cork teams won championships from lower league divisions, Cork’s prospects appeared at best long-term and at worst non-existent.
Championships are organic and this year’s especially so. Therefore the presence of league back markers in early September should be seen less as outlandish and more a measure of the distance covered by the teams. That journey has been remarkable and not just for Cork and Clare.
More rigorous refereeing has helped create a less permissive atmosphere and the game has accordingly been let flow.
Since the All-Ireland quarter-finals this year’s finalists have developed quickly. Barry-Murphy’s belief that the achievement in defeating Kilkenny, albeit that the champions were on their last legs, was transformative is credible .
Clare’s win over Galway didn’t carry the same weight but as an expression of the winners’ rising fortunes, it was graphic and showcased the configuration that took them to the final: Conor Ryan at centre back with Patrick Donnellan sweeping and Tony Kelly wreaking his devastation from centrefield rather than centre forward.
To no great surprise Fitzgerald announced last night that the same team would start tomorrow as did the last day.
They were so confident and assured in that semi-final that an under-performing Limerick never stood a chance but two queries remain: with their free taking sorted out, the Munster champions drew the second half and despite being so much on top Clare got only 1-1 from their two-man inside line, Darach Honan and Conor McGrath.
The Munster semi-final is so far away that it appears as irrelevant as the league matches but Cork’s superiority that day isn’t necessarily rendered obsolete by Clare’s subsequent improvements. Cork were understrength that day with Lorcán McLoughlin and captain Pat Cronin both unable to start.
Clare will feel that the squanderlust, which left them inadequately ahead at the break, won’t be repeated and that were Honan’s persecution of Stephen McDonnell to be repeated it wouldn’t come with such a cheap price tag. They will also believe Tony Kelly won’t be kept as quiet again as he was when playing on the 40.
All of the above is valid but it’s equally so to argue that the team’s evolved game with its running and pinpoint shooting from distance hasn’t been creating as many chances on the inside line and that Cork’s defence has stepped up since June and by dint of circumstances, has got used to deploying an extra man in defence.
It’s unlikely that Brian Murphy is going to follow Kelly out to the middle but the most pressing man marking job is likely to be on Pádraic Collins, who has been excellent on the 40 – and by way of warning, shot five from play in the Munster semi-final.
But McLoughlin and Daniel Kearney have the mobility – as they showed against Dublin – to stop Clare swarming the same way they did against Limerick.
There are good reasons for marginally favouring Cork tomorrow. Patrick Horgan has had an extraordinary season, the bed rock of which continues to be his clinical dead ball shooting and if Clare concede frees like they did in the semi-final they needn’t look to their opponents to spare them the consequences given the manner in which Anthony Nash’s range supplements Horgan.
There is room for improvement in the Cork attack in that neither Luke O’Farrell nor Conor Lehane have been firing on all cylinders but there were signs of improvement against Dublin and the Clare defence although composed t in the semi-final has had a tendency to cough up goal chances.
The critical battle may well come on the Clare half -back line. Cork made a lot of inroads the last time the teams met and Séamus Harnedy ended up as Man of the Match on his championship debut. With Cronin back the task for Clare won’t be any easier.
The expectation is for a tightly balanced match with the movement and touch from two young teams promising a fitting end to the season. Cork have sufficient pace and mobility to disrupt the flow of Clare’s optimum game and while slowing it, exert enough pressure at the other end to cap an extraordinary act of resurrection.