Clare 5-16 Cork 3-16 LET there be no doubt about the best team in hurling in 2013 after this magnificent All-Ireland final replay in sold-out Croke Park (82,276) on Saturday.
Yes, Cork could have tied it up in the final minute, the ball just bouncing away from sub Cathal Naughton in a possible goal-scoring position, cleared by Seadna Morey and goaled at the other end by Darach Honan, but as in the drawn game three weeks ago, had Clare been denied it would have been an injustice.
Jimmy's young Rebels are good, an awful lot better than many of us gave them credit for earlier this year; Davy's even younger Banner-boys are better, late teenage sub Shane O'Donnell (19) the headline kid after this epic with his 3-3 from play.
"We've had unreal games this year so far," said Clare captain Patrick Donnellan, accepting the Liam MacCarthy Cup on behalf of his team, "Not least three weeks ago - today capped it off. We are a team that pride ourselves on being honest, a team that prides itself on its commitment, a team that prides itself on everything we have - it's brilliant then to meet a team today with all those same qualities." It was generous tribute by Patrick but no more than Cork deserved.
The drawn game was a heart-stopping see-saw event, Clare looking the better side for almost the entire game only to be overtaken in injury-time by goal-scoring Cork. It had been the first time in that match that the Rebels were ahead and they were within 30 seconds of being crowned champions. Then came a dramatic last-gasp point from corner-back Domhnall O'Donovan, a point that will certainly go down in Clare hurling history, a point that salvaged a draw, gave them another day out, and ultimately, this All-Ireland title.
This replay, and as pointed out by Donnellan, did indeed cap it off, in fact capped off a fantastic hurling season. Forty scores, eight goals, magnificent scoring from both sets of forwards yet, in apparent contradiction, heroes galore in defence also.
Score for score the pattern followed almost directly the pattern of the drawn game, Clare hitting the front early, Cork playing catch-up; there was one glaring exception however. Three weeks ago Clare couldn't buy a goal (it ended 0-25 to 3-16), on this occasion they just came raining down, live wire full-forward Shane O'Donnell with a first half hat-trick.
His first came in the 6th minute, Donnellan carving open the Cork defence with a superb solo from well inside his own half before drawing Shane O'Neill and parting to O'Donnell; that score put Clare 1-3 to 0-2 ahead. His second goal came just seven minutes later, this time Conor McGrath (hardest working player on the pitch) doing the set-up work, O'Neill again forced to leave O'Donnell unattended, in point-blank range - 2-5 to 0-4, Clare rampant.
Cork keeper Anthony Nash stopped the rot for Cork, a bullet 20m free from the right side of the D past 13 defenders on the Clare goal-line, reducing Clare's lead to a goal (2-6 to 1-6, 19m).
Less than a minute later Shane was in again, snapping up a ball that broke oh-so-perfectly for him off a Cork defender's stick, goal number three and Clare back in command - 3-6 to 1-6.
As they had done in the drawn game, however, Cork held their nerve, didn't panic, and points from Seamus Harnedy (superb), Patrick Horgan and Pa Cronin had them back well in contention at the break, trailing by four (3-9 to 1-11).
Surely, we were thinking, this can't go on, these teams simply won't be able to maintain this pace, this intensity? We were wrong.
Clare got the first score of the new half, a sublime Tony Kelly point (does he score any other kind?) but it was Cork who began to build the momentum and by the 53rd minute, Horgan with four points, they had tied it up, 3-10 to 1-16.
Clare were struggling, needed a lifeline. As in the first half it was that youngster Shane O'Donnell doing the necessary; not a goal this time but his point, arguably, was as important as any of those first half goals. That score settled Clare again and two more points (John Conlon and Colin Ryan) had them a goal clear again by the 59th minute.
Again the ground was rocked by a goal, again the teams were tied, Conor Lehane's fierce first-time drive saved by Clare defender Domhnall O'Donovan but Harnedy on hand to shoot home the rebound.
This was Cork heart, Cork courage, the gauntlet thrown down again to Clare. Crucially, however, the Rebels just couldn't get their noses in front. Again it was Clare with the next score and fittingly, it was that man Conor McGrath, and a goal worthy of winning any game. Capitalising on a cruel break from between two Cork defenders, he pounced on the loose ball, took off, had a glance, then placed a powerful shot to a spot even Anthony Nash couldn't reach.
Now a goal up, Clare added three points, seemed to be coasting home, but still Cork weren't done. Another goal, another beauty, Pa Cronin with a huge catch and perfect pass, Stephen Moylan doing the finishing. There was time for one more Cork attack, Naughton had that half-chance, missed, Morey picked up the break, set up Honan at the other end - game over, season over.
But God, what a game, surely the game of the Gods.
Scorers for Clare: S O'Donnell (3-3); Colin Ryan (0-7, six frees, one 65); C McGrath (1-1); D Honan (1-0); T Kelly (0-3); J Conlon (0-2).
Scorers for Cork: P Horgan (0-9, seven frees); S Harnedy (1-2); S Moylan (1-1); A Nash (1-0, free); C Lehane (0-2); P Cronin, L McLoughlin (0-1).
CLARE: P Kelly; D O'Donovan, C Dillon, D McInerney; B Bugler, Conor Ryan, P O'Connor; P Donnellan (c), C Galvin; J Conlon, T Kelly, Colin Ryan; P Collins, S O'Donnell, C McGrath. Subs: C McInerney for Galvin (52); N O'Connell for Collins (59); D Honan for O'Donnell (66); S Morey for Kelly (71). Blood sub: F Lynch for O'Donnell (50/51);
CORK: A Nash; C O'Sullivan, S O'Neill, B Murphy; C Joyce, S McDonnell, W Egan; D Kearney, L McLoughlin; S Harnedy, C McCarthy, P Cronin (c); L O'Farrell, P Horgan, C Lehane. Subs: S White for Egan (23); S Moylan for O'Farrell (35); T Kenny for Kearney (38); C Naughton for McCarthy (55); K Murphy for McDonnell (inj. 67).
Referee: James McGrath (Westmeath)
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