A triumph of will pushes Cork to ultimate triumph

The rain came down and in the crowd of 62,989 neutral thoughts might have dwelt on the pathetic fallacy

The rain came down and in the crowd of 62,989 neutral thoughts might have dwelt on the pathetic fallacy. Might the heavens have been weeping for the re-emergence of the traditional powers in yesterday's Guinness All-Ireland hurling final? Or for the dire quality of the match, particularly in the first half?

As the afternoon drizzled along, something of the storied history between Cork and Kilkenny must have echoed down the generations, because for the final quarter the match opened up.

With nowhere left to hide, no stratagems worth keeping up their sleeves, the realisation dawned that nothing that had happened already this season mattered anymore. The record of four months' hurling would now be written over 17 minutes.

There was an epic intensity as Cork's young outsiders chased down the Leinster champions, and although Kilkenny resisted the winning surge until the last six minutes, the scoreline drifted beyond their reach and stayed there, bobbing around at a point during the frantic closing minutes before Pat O'Connor blew up the last All-Ireland final of the millennium.

It had all started so scrappily. Rain and wind combined to make the surface slippy and the ball unreliable. Twenty-three wides (13 to Kilkenny) disfigured the first half.

Between the puck-outs the hurling wasn't bad, but at 0-5 to 0-4 to Kilkenny at half-time, it wasn't easy to find anyone who could remember a poorer 35 minutes in a final.

Given Kilkenny's exploits this season a low-scoring match suited Cork. And there was more to please Jimmy Barry-Murphy and his selectors. Kilkenny's half backs, awesome in the second half against Clare, never got a grip on the game. Fergal McCormack moved around intelligently and varied the target for Donal Og Cusack's puck-outs.

The Cork defence laid the foundations of this victory by restricting a team which had averaged 29 points per match to 12.

But it was the forwards who did it in the end. Timmy McCarthy, in his first championship match exactly three months ago, had had at times the air of the headless chicken. But through the summer his vision on the ball has sharpened and yesterday his was as big a contribution as anyone's.

Three points from play and a number of incisive runs were topped by his move to centrefield in the last quarter which was heralded by the Cork management as one of the main reasons they turned the match.

The second half had been a long pursuit up to then. Although Alan Browne celebrated his half-time introduction with a point within 20 seconds of the restart, Kilkenny reeled off four unanswered points. Joe Deane missed a free, Mickey O'Connell a 65.

With their challenge creaking, Cork got a break. DJ Carey missed a straightforward chance to push Kilkenny five points ahead, 0-10 to 0-5. A minute later, Kevin Murray - sent on, amidst some confusion as to who was going off, because the Cork bench felt they needed a goal - swung over a point.

From there to the end, the match soared out of its sticky mediocrity as points were traded with sufficient disproportion to bring Cork back into the hunt.

Seanie McGrath ended 70 minutes as the star which his extrovert talents have always suggested. From an early stage he was skinning Willie O'Connor but the ball didn't run for him. Two wides were followed by one dropped short as he tried to ensure accuracy.

Yet he never lost the faith, and between the 55th and 62nd minute he took centre-stage for a crucial soliloquy. One point from a clever Joe Deane pass and another set up by McCarthy prefaced his third - a sprinkling of stardust tight in the right corner under the Hill.

Jimmy Barry-Murphy said he knew his team would win when that one cleared the bar to tie up the scores at 0-11 each.

There was so much which defied general expectation in the match, and yet so much that had been foreshadowed. Kilkenny were never raging favourites for the match, but they were widely expected to win. Yet despite the draining experience of losing last year's final, yesterday was more unexplored territory for them than it was for Cork.

With their attack moving smoothly and menacingly all summer, Kilkenny had never been put to the pin of their collective collar to win a match. As goals hurtled in during their short Leinster campaign, neither Laois nor reigning All-Ireland champions Offaly could live with them.

Ultimately decisive was Cork's experience of going into big matches - more often than not as outsiders - which went down to the wire and proved time and again their exceptional capacity to combine classy hurling, irrepressible self-confidence and icy composure.

In the wind and the rain, there was an easy case to be made for the conditions suiting the physically solid and experienced practitioners whom Kilkenny had dotted around the field. Pat O'Neill emerged through the rain of the counties' last final meeting in 1992 to claim the man-of-the-match award.

Seven years ago he made his name by repudiating a wobbly reputation that season and the consequent bombardment which Cork were encouraged to unleash on top of him. Yesterday, the plan was to keep the ball as far away from him as possible; it largely worked.

John Power had earned many plaudits on his comeback to the Kilkenny team this season. Forceful and crafty up until yesterday, he had epitomised the improvement of the team's attack. Willie O'Connor has ruled the left flank of Kilkenny's defence all decade.

Nonetheless, when the day was done there was a feeling that we had seen the passing of a generation of hurlers and the arrival of another. Finals make their own heroes, and whereas few could be surprised that Brian Corcoran responded so hungrily to his first visit to the top table since that final seven years ago, the anticipated summitry of his meeting with Power never materialised.

Corcoran won the day and was able to move around his defence and play the role of general which the season has demanded of him.

With Power subdued, the spin-off effects for the rest of the attack never surfaced. DJ Carey had a very quiet conclusion to his hitherto sparkling year and drew his first All-Ireland final blank in five outings. Looking fractionally caught for pace on the heavy ground, he was also marked by two imposing athletes in Sean Og O hAilpin and Diarmuid O'Sullivan.

At one point in the first half, Carey made his move, but O'Sullivan, whose beefy presence under the high ball had been looking a little shaky, kept his concentration and matched his man stride for stride, harassing him like a bulldog all the way. Late in the second half, Carey sliced through onto a chance but, squeezed for space, his kicked shot went wide.

Amidst the gloom of their highly-rated half-forward line shutting down, Kilkenny's one ray of hope was Henry Shefflin. The young full forward had generally made his best contributions to the cause when matches had loosened up a bit as contests, but yesterday he was very good and the one Kilkenny forward to raise his game for the final.

At centrefield, Cork's captain Mark Landers gave a fine display in the first half and contested the sector well with Andy Comerford, before the injury which had threatened his participation in the weeks before the match forced his withdrawal in the 51st minute.

Mickey O'Connell never really got going and found no opportunity to open his shoulders and go for points. His long-range frees and 65s weren't on line either, but he refused to be demoralised and threw himself around, scrapping for every squirming ball in the hectic finale.

It summed up the win. The sight of one of their cocky stylists, an under-achieving final behind him, frantically diving into the mud demonstrated the triumph of will. And one triumph led exuberantly to another.

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