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Five-star Clare’s class shines through

Clare's Shane O'Donnell is challenged by Shane O'Neill
Clare’s Shane O’Donnell is challenged by Shane O’Neill

 

WHEN they had nothing left to give, Clare and Cork gave us more. 

There were 71 chances in the Banner’s incredible All-Ireland final replay win over the Rebels, meaning no minute went without incident at Croke Park. Shane O’Donnell need never again have a lonely night after scoring 3-3 to decide Liam MacCarthy’s fate and the first thing to remark on that is that it’s not the first time Davy Fitzgerald has found a good answer to a Darach Honan injury.

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In the All-Ireland qualifier between the Banner and Wexford, the young Eire Óg man started and scored 1-1  before Cathal McInerney, originally not named on the panel, came on at full-forward wearing Honan’s number 14 to score 2-1 and kill off the Model County in extra time.

Conor McGrath’s direct running and goal assists were a key element of that eventual qualifier win and so it was again against Cork.

The Cratloe man robbed Conor O’Sullivan to set up O’Donnell for his second goal on 13 minutes and nabbed the ball away from the Sarsfields man again with eight minutes left on the clock to smash in one of his own. The latter put the Banner three points up and again prevented the Rebels from finally gaining a lead.

That, over the course of 140-plus minutes, was something they managed for only a very brief period during injury time of the first game, with Domhnall O’Donovan quickly cancelling out Patrick Horgan’s would-be winner.

Throughout the two matches, there was a sense that Clare were always a few points better but it didn’t help Cork’s case that they were giving scores away.

Under pressure of course, the Rebels backs gifted those two goals mentioned and another to O’Donnell when Shane O’Neill needlessly went for a high ball being contested by John Conlon and William Egan on 20 minutes. The Leesiders self-destruct mechanism was laid in the opening minutes when Egan and Lorcan McLoughlin both spilled possession and their dispossessors to gift Colin Ryan easy frees. The Banner didn’t need help to win the game but they sure got it.

To be fair to Cork and manager Jimmy Barry-Murphy, they got as much right as the two sets of 15 would allow them to. We mean this in the sense that Davy Fitzgerald seems to have the greater talent both inside and outside his starting line-ups, and he uses them well.

Podge Collins had been responsible for 0-9 in the drawn game (scoring, assisting and winning converted frees) but Brian Murphy nullified the Banner’s biggest threat. Collins still managed to win a single converted free, one of those mentioned, and assisted for a couple of Tony Kelly scores in either half but in cutting that particular production line from 0-9 to 0-3, Cork would have been quite content.

Pa Cronin has had pneumonia this year and was struggling with his leg before the drawn final, in which he had minimal influence outside his excellent goal, and we felt full-forward was the only option.

Clare's Conor McGrath
Clare’s Conor McGrath

Cork went with that and even if it’s debatable whether all of the frees he won off Cian Dillon were justified, the Rebel captain’s contributions led to 2-4 of his side’s 3-16. Again, JBM got it right.

Not as right as Davy Fitz though.

Clearly they have had an issue in how they seem to outplay so many rivals but do not win with the measure of comfort that their play merits (Waterford, Wexford, Limerick and Cork twice) — though that’s a worry for another day. The positive is that this is a developing team with an average age of 23 that hasn’t so much scraped over the line, but has had teams clawing to stay with them.

They’ve changed the game, or taken some of what Galway tried last year and improved it. Players rove but with intent; the manager identifies match-ups and exploits chinks in others’ armoury.

One massive contrast between Clare and Galway is, as this writer has mentioned many times, that Henry Shefflin was being gobbled up by Fergal Moore in the opening 28 minutes of last year’s drawn final, but the Tribe didn’t persist with that match-up once the Ballyhale man went to centre-forward.

Shefflin went to town as Tony Óg Regan tried to hold the six position… in both games. The former hurler of the year went from struggling badly to new hurler of the year.

For Clare, the match-ups meant O’Donnell exposing O’Neill in a way that Honan could not in the drawn game — with excellent deliveries in, playing a huge part. It also allowed Conlon get a big foothold in the half-forward line as Egan was quickly hauled off. It took Stephen McDonnell out to centre-back and Christopher Joyce to the wing — most likely with the consent of JBM as he looked for positive match-ups, but the Cork defence ideally might want to be aligned more closely to the numbers on their backs.

The Rebels created more chances, scoring 19 of 39 versus 21 of 32, but their accuracy let them down: 49% conversion rate to 66%. Goals were key, obviously, but so too was playing catch-up for so long.

In the 25 minutes from the 28th to the 53rd, Cork went on a run of 0-9 to 0-1 to level the game, and that from a burst of 19 attempts to just five for Clare. Once at parity, it would be only human nature to relax for a minute and think the game would take care of itself thereafter. It didn’t, as O’Donnell shrugged off O’Neill for a key point on 54 minutes as the Banner won the remainder 2-6 to 2-0.

Clare always had a response, and nothing sums that up better than the fact that they have replied to each of Cork’s six goals over two games with the next score. The heads never drop, nor does the workrate. Cork did a lot right to stay in the game but their manager felt the better team won as their luck ran out.

Pat Donnellan deserved to lift the title after another superb game, and it’s worth pointing out that he assisted for 1-1 in the opening six minutes before defending from the middle throughout. Typical of the Banner, it was all hands to every pump.

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Shane Stapleton is the Irish Post's GAA hurling columnist. Follow Shane on Twitter @shanesaint

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