Intriguing history reaches unforgettable climax
Cork and Clare have shared many significant days in the past four decades but next Sunday is for keeps
Cork’s Conor O’Sullivan and Conor McGrath of Clare clash in the Allianz Hurling League Division 1A Relegation Play-Off last April. ©INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan
They’re here because they’re here. The unfolding of the All-Ireland hurling championship has brought us to a final between Cork and Clare that was entirely unforeseen at the start of the summer. Three months ago with Kilkenny and Tipperary contesting the league title, there was little sign that a transformative season was about to begin.
It’s very difficult to rewind and relive the consensus of May after weeks of scintillating weather and glorious breakthroughs. Before the Munster championship Cork were available at 16 to 1 to lift the Liam MacCarthy and Clare even more distant at 22 to 1.
It’s safe to say very few if any All-Ireland pairings have ever emerged in September trailing that degree of unlikelihood.
Now that the final has arrived it’s how it happened and preliminary conclusions can be drawn. For the most part they are positive: the cultivation of talented young hurlers – Clare’s through an increasingly productive development system and Cork’s through engagement in the Fitzgibbon Cup – and their emergence at the highest level of the game.
There is one distinction that makes this year’s All-Ireland unique. Although it is by no means the first intra-provincial pairing – it’s the fifth, counting last year’s Leinster final renewal between Galway and Kilkenny – it is the first in which the contestants hadn’t previously met in their provincial final.
Novelty between the counties is, however, strictly defined because their relationship has been one of the hinges of the Munster championship in the past 40 years. Their rivalry this year that has seen Clare win three times between pre-season competition and league matches, including a relegation play-off before they were defeated in championship.
Cork’s defeat of favourites Clare in June gave David Fitzgerald’s team more to do to reach the final and the two counties symbolically eliminated both of last year’s All-Ireland finalists, Kilkenny and Galway, from the championship in the quarter-finals.
There used to be a popular theory amongst those searching for the neutrinos in Ger Loughnane’s hurling universe and it ran like this. As a player he was a prominent presence in a Clare team that won National Leagues but couldn’t crack the Munster championship, coming out narrowly second-best to the great Cork three-in-a-row team in two provincial finals.
Consequently, it was speculated, Loughnane’s almost wilful disregard for the league (apart from reaching the 1995 final) while his team became a championship force constituted a rejection of the spring competition’s false dawns.
In the context of the relationship between the counties the mid-1970s were notable for Cork man Justin McCarthy’s coaching work in Clare, a significant plank in the platform underpinning the county’s rise at the time.