THIS wasn’t just about guaranteeing holders Cork a place in the Guinness All-Ireland hurling championship quarter-final, irrespective of how they fare in the Munster final.
With all the flair, efficiency and self-assurance which manager John Allen has heralded in the face of expressions of doubt about the team and individual players, the All-Ireland champions showed in Thurles yesterday they are back with a bang.
Hapless Clare, who promised much over an impressive opening 20 minutes, were simply unable to compete on level terms on a day when superb play from Joe Deane was one of the main highlights.
Considering the manner in which last season’s All-Ireland semi-final meeting was decided, questions were being asked of both sides. With his side leading 0-6 to 0-2 after 11 minutes, there was the promise of Anthony Daly’s team putting the lessons learned in defeat to good use. But, it was a case of flattering to deceive. Cork confidently absorbed the pressure and midfielders Jerry O’Connor and Tom Kenny began to stamp their authority on the game. Clare never again imposed their will on proceedings.
With Ben O’Connor failing a fitness test and his place going to Cian O’Connor, Cork found it hard to make progress after Niall McCarthy gave them the lead inside the first minute. Once they had fallen behind two minutes later, to the first of six Niall Gilligan frees, they had to wait over 20 minutes before regaining a lead they would not surrender.
What was especially noteworthy about Clare’s play over this period was the strength of Tony Carmody at centre forward and the threat posed by Tony Nugent in the right corner. Between them they accounted for four of those opening six scores.
Their challenge was boosted by good defending. Cork promised a goal as early as the fourth minute when Deane got inside Brian Lohan but wing back Gerry Quinn came charging across to avert the danger. This heralded one of Deane’s most skilful displays in a Cork jersey and the consistency he and others were to offer the champions was something that Clare visibly were lacking.
The first signs of Cork’s fightback were to be seen in the way Ronan Curran settled down to dominate at centre back and nullify Carmody. John Gardiner, contributing from an early stage and the impeccable Sean Óg Ó hAilpín, complemented that advantage and when Brian Murphy got on top of Nugent, the defence was never again stretched.
Not for the first time, Kenny and Jerry O’Connor were to play critical roles at midfield, dropping back to take ball from the half backs and frequently going deep into attack. Kenny showed devastating speed to score a splendid point in the 15th minute and O’Connor was to hit three great scores, all long distance with the third putting Cork back in front (0-8 to 0-7).
Clare were worryingly lacking penetration. Colin Lynch wasn’t involved very much and team captain Sean McMahon didn’t contribute any score — a tribute to Niall McCarthy’s high workrate.
Cork’s play was characterised by admirable teamwork from Donal Óg Cusack forward to the front three and supplemented by brilliant striking of the ball. Deane was far too clever for Gerry O’Grady and wasn’t limited when Frank Lohan switched to him. Brian Lohan made a number of wholehearted clearances but, unlike the Croke Park meeting, never able to master Brian Corcoran.
It meant Cork were in buoyant mood going in at half time, even though they only had a two-point lead, 0-10 to 0-8.
Within 10 minutes of the restart that lead had been stretched to seven. The ease and speed with which the scores were created and taken spelt trouble for Clare.
Two early Cork scores came from Deane frees and, during that period, two other events indicated the way the game was going. First, Corcoran scored a gem from the right corner after outsmarting Brian Lohan. It was signified the vulnerability of a player who often lifts the team with his swashbuckling play.
Secondly, Anthony Daly withdrew Tony Nugent after 10 minutes and, considering his excellent start, it was an admission of the way things had gone wrong for the team.
Cork maintained a grip on the game with ruthless efficiency, with Tom Kenny performing at the height of his ability and Jerry O’Connor unbeatable. And, with Deane briefly off the field for treatment, Neil Ronan (unlucky not to start), struck over a fine point just seconds after running on to the field.
While Alan Markham was more effective at half forward and substitute Jonathan Clancy justified his introduction, Niall Gilligan was Clare’s best forward in the second half.
Long before the end, Cork were almost toying with Clare, such was their supremacy. Appropriately their last two scores came from Deane — on a day when his skills shone. It was a master class from a player who debuted under Jimmy Barry-Murphy 10 years ago.
* Barry Kelly could feel well pleased with his handling of the game.
Scorers: Cork: J. Deane 0-9 (0-6 frees); J. O’Connor 0-4 (0-1 free, 0-1 ‘65); B. Corcoran and T. Kenny 0-2 each; N. McCarthy, R. Curran and N. Ronan 0-1 each. Clare: N. Gilligan 0-6 frees; T. Carmody 0-3; B. Nugent 0-2; D. O’Connell 0-2; A. Markham 0-1.
CORK: D. Og Cusack; P. Mulcahy (capt.), D. O’Sullivan, B. Murphy; J. Gardiner, R. Curran, S. Og O hAilpin; T. Kenny, J. O’Connor; T. McCarthy, N. McCarthy, C. O’Connor; K. Murphy, B. Corcoran, J. Deane.
Subs: N. Ronan for Corcoran (injured, 61st minute); B. O’Connor for K. Murphy (64th); W. Sherlock for Mulcahy (71st).
CLARE: D. Fitzgerald; G. O’Grady, B. Lohan, F. Lohan; B. O’Connell, S. McMahon (capt.), G. Quinn; T. Griffin, C. Lynch; D. McMahon, T. Carmody, F. Lynch; B. Nugent, A. Markham, N. Gilligan. Subs: D. Quinn for F. Lynch (30th minute). D. Quinn for F. Lynch (30th minute); J. Clancy for Nugent (43rd); D. O’Rourke for D. McMahon (52nd); D. O’Connell for Quinn (60th); P. Donnellan for C. Lynch (61st).
* Attendance: 40,349.