THE only certainly about this final is the uncertainty.
We’re leaning towards Cork but it’s a game that people will call one way or the other, as we have, and not be truly convinced about it.
You could be right for the wrong reasons… or be mistaken despite factoring in the correct details. As heinous a reflective term as it is, sometimes it’s all on the day because a game can take on a life of its own.
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Take, for example, the two semi-finals.
Circumstances allowed Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s side pull away from Dublin, a red card in this case, while Clare’s progression was partly down to the good ship Limerick being foundered on an inability to convert any more than six of 20 first-half chances. These factors flouted form lines and informed predictions.
Cork, not to mention their adversaries Dublin, produced the highest-octane hurling of the year in their semi-final meeting on August 11, and both played to a higher level than Clare reached in their victory over nervy Limerick.
It is because of this greater level of performance, an absolute requirement because nothing less would have beaten the Dubs, that we are edging towards the Rebels. The bookies are saying likewise, and have put the handicap at a single point in Cork’s favour.
The two semi-finals told as many truths as they did lies though. We know Cork can play some stirring stuff but we don’t know if they would have come through that game because the carpet was been pulled out from under Anthony Daly’s team with Ryan O’Dwyer’s red card.
Just as the game was building to a crescendo, the referee punctured one of the two lungs blowing along this hurricane of a game. Dublin ran out of oxygen and lost their way, while Cork kicked on.
In truth, James Owens’ fussiness decided who would play Clare in the final, when it should have been up to Dublin and Cork to continue fighting it out for the right.
It’s easy to say that it was typical O’Dwyer because he has now been sent off four times in competitive games for Dublin.
This feeling that Anthony Daly should have taken him off is irrelevant because we don’t feel his actions warranted a red while, secondly and perhaps more crucially when looking at Cork ahead of the final, our feeling is that Dublin were holding the whip hand at the time of the dismissal.
At the same time, in a game that toed and froed, you could not confidently say that it should be a Dubs-Banner final had Owens held fire with his red card. That remains an unknown but it creates a doubt about Cork. Class and all as they were, they didn’t come through their game mano-a-mano.
They were denied the opportunity to show if they could continue their brilliance down the stretch, and we will never know if they would have retreated into their shells as they had done against Kilkenny.
In that quarter-final, a badly-weakened and misfiring Cats side were all over Cork in the late stages — but that was partially down to the Rebels still searching for belief against a monopolist of the game.
Since July 28 in Thurles, when Clare also put Galway on their backs, belief is something that both teams have been imbued with more and more; to the point that they are barely recognisable from the duo that fought out a relegation battle on April 14.
And while we feel that these two teams have changed immensely in the four-and-a-half months since that NHL clash at the Gaelic Grounds, which the Banner won 0-31 to 2-23 after extra time, there are indicators that we can take from that game.
There are things that both teams will have learned, because the personnel has not changed much. In that relegation playoff, when Pa Cronin moved into full-forward late on, Brendan Bugler followed him.
Will Cork think of doing this early on so as to disjoint what has been a strong Clare half-back line of Patrick O’Connor, Conor Ryan and Bugler?
When the Achilles is exposed, will this Cork team now direct every arrow towards it instead of taking the percentage shots?
In the second half of that play-off, Luke O’Farrell won a 21-yard free after being pulled back by David McInerney, who had been frustrated by the little man snapping a high ball over him — the defender was not going to let it end with a goal.
Patrick Horgan, confronted by four Banner backs and goalkeeper Patrick Kelly on the goalline, looked to the sideline for instructions.
At 0-13 to 0-9 ahead, the call was to take the point but for a team that creates so few goal chances, this was a golden opportunity. Anthony Nash has as powerful a shot as we’ve ever seen in the game (look up his penalty against Wexford in 2012 for proof) and yet Barry-Murphy played it safe, if you want to call it that.
They ultimately lost a game that they could have killed off. In many ways, it points to the lack of ruthlessness in this Rebels team, the same lack of a killer instinct that they showed by not spilling more Kilkenny blood in the quarters.
That instinct is something Clare are showing, more and more.
They had 17 wides in that relegation game but just five in their All-Ireland semi-final with Limerick. Their chances conversion rate against Galway was 65% and it rose to 70% against the Treaty.
From a team that scored just 0-15 in their Munster semi-final loss to the Rebels, they have averaged 0-30 in their four games since against Laois (1-32), Wexford (3-24 aet), Galway (1-23) and Limerick (1-22). Their upward charge on the graph is a huge warning to Cork, but both have plenty to be wary of.
Neither will want to change too much of what’s working so, with that in mind, you would expect Clare and Cork to retain the game plans that got them this far.
Patrick Donnellan’s positioning at the D foiled both Galway and Limerick and there is an expectation that the man who wears number six will continue to sweep, with the intention of blotting out Patrick Horgan. Not to mention keeping the Rebels’ goal tally of one in this year’s championship to just that.
Midfield is the key area because all four men, assuming Tony Kelly remains alongside Colm Galvin against Cork’s Lorcan McLoughlin and Daniel Kearney, have been exceptional workhorses and ball-carriers.
Plenty of other traffic will come into the middle third and, in the interest of sticking to what worked before, the Rebels will be happy to push their backs up on any wandering Banner forwards.
It’s a high-risk strategy and one that may present opportunities to Conor McGrath and Darach Honan inside.
It could decide the title but Cork may prevail if Conor Lehane finally catches fire, Horgan gets enough chances (or more from frees than the metronomic Colin Ryan), Cronin causes havoc or Luke O’Farrell has a big day.
Whether it will come down to tactics or individual brilliance or the whim of Brian Gavin, who we feel will let this flow, is anyone’s guess. Just like the semi-finals, it’s all up in the air like the fluffy clouds.
We’re happy we have a few of the right reasons, but we’re fully aware that all of these could be flouted because the occasion will reveal the true characters of players that have never been here before. Hence the certain uncertainty.
For the record, we’ll go for Cork by one.