Clare the outstanding side on the day and look better set for the replay than Cork

After a poor first half, the final lived up to what has been an epic championship

An incredible second-half and an unbelievable finish summed up just how wonderfully unpredictable this 2013 championship has been. You couldn’t have scripted it really.

Clare had seemed destined to lift this greatest prize in hurling for virtually the whole match and, at the death, had to produce their own life-saving – from corner-back Domhnall O’Donovan unbelievably at left-corner forward – to remain alive and kicking and force a replay.

Cork could crib that time was up (and it was) but that levelling point in added time was no more than Clare deserved. From the word go, Clare were the team that played the better hurling and, using an orthodox team set-up with no sweeper on this occasion, were quite outstanding.

But in this year of years for the hurling championship, with one exciting game following another as the summer moved on into autumn, this final eventually lived up to all that because the first-half was poor.


And it really is incredible to think, in a championship where it was almost impossible to call the eventual winner from the quarter-final stage when all six teams that remained stood realistic chances, that it continued right to the end with the outcome in doubt to the 70th minute and then beyond.

I could see Jimmy Barry-Murphy frantically signalling to Brian Gavin that time was up but it would have been heartbreaking on Clare, given what they'd brought to the game and indeed the entire championship, if it had ended for them before that phenomenal late match-saving point from O'Donovan.

What on earth was he doing that far up the field in the first place? And, then, to finish the score the way he did? It was phenomenal. O’Donovan came in for a bit of stick with his displays earlier in the summer but he started this match brilliantly – doing his defensive duties to the highest standard – and then to become a point-scorer right at the end showed how unpredictable this 2013 season has been. And it’s not over yet! Not now.

Clare should have been further ahead than two points at half-time. Conor Ryan was absolutely outstanding – with some quite magnificent catches – and Tony Kelly and Colm Galvin were on top around midfield. Podge Collins was on fire and Cork were left to feed mainly on scraps with Séamus Harnedy winning the odd ball and Conor O'Sullivan and Shane O'Neill doing well in defence, although O'Neill was probably fortunate to evade a red card for that incident with Darrach Honan.

General opinion
At half-time, the general opinion was that the overall hurling from that first-half was not a great reflection on what had gone before in the championship. Cork's touch was poor and it looked as if some serious surgery was needed but they were still only two points behind.

After half-time, that trend continued with Cork’s continued poor touch only making it harder for themselves.

But the sun came out after half-time and that seemed to provide the signal for yet another twist to add another exciting and unpredictable episode to what has been a wonderful championship.

Clare still seemed to be on top. Even after Nash’s goal and Lehane’s goal, Clare were able to come back and must have felt they had the job done when Conor Ryan and Collins scored magnificent points.

All along, even though goals have been hard to come by this year, I’ve felt this Cork team were capable of scoring goals and they needed them in this game. And none more than Pa Cronin’s, Cork’s third, which finally seemed to get them in with a sniff of winning.

Clare will look back on this and wonder how they didn't get out of reach. In particular, the goal-scoring chance that fell to Collins will be one they will rue. I don't know why he decided to kick the ball with his foot rather than get his hurley at the ball. And Colin Ryan had a couple of missed frees, in a year where missed frees have proven so costly. Against that, Horgan also missed one late on too.

No, this is a final Clare will look back on and believe they were the far better team and wonder why they only managed to get a draw – in a do-or-die manner – with the last play of the game.

From the time it reached the quarter-final stage, it was impossible to determine who would win out and we’re none the wiser now.

I’ve seen these two teams play three matches this year and there really is nothing between them. Clare have won one (the National League relegation final), Cork have won one (when they met in the first round in Munster) and now we’ve seen them draw in the most dramatic manner imaginable.

Cork needed goals to survive in this final and will likely need them again the next day out. There is a strong belief in Cork but I don’t think it will be as strong going into the replay.

So much of the build-up to this match was about the tactics that would be used and Clare’s probable deployment of the sweeper which had proven effective in the wins over Galway and Limerick. But this final wasn’t about tactics. The hurling here was about the fundamentals of touch and skill and the tradition of the game. Tradition brought Cork a long way but they will need more than tradition the next day.

This was a truly great second half and, in a championship year which has served up tremendous excitement and drama, we still haven’t reached the end. It is all to play for still.