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Calm champions just won’t let go

ONCE more, champions Cork were able to draw on huge reserves of confidence and craft to resist the spirited and sustained challenge from Tipperary in yesterday’s absorbing Guinness Munster hurling final in Thurles.

It saw goalkeeper Donal Óg Cusack stop two certain goals in the first half and, with their much-vaunted half-back line excelling, self-assured play helped them through a difficult second half to ultimately secure a deserved victory.

It was agonisingly close for Babs Keating’s well-prepared team which just didn’t have the scoring power to cause an upset. Scores were level at half-time and again 13 minutes after the resumption and entering the last minute of ordinary time only a single score separated the teams.

But, Sarsfields’ Kieran Murphy pointed almost immediately after coming on and Joe Deane, immaculate in his free-taking and one of the main candidates for man-of-the-match, hit over another just before ‘keeper Brendan Cummins stopped him from goaling with a ground shot.

Apart from the major influence of the half-backs, each of them a potential winner of the individual accolade, the other was the huge influence of midfielders Jerry O’Connor and Tom Kenny. Overall, the team performance which, while far from perfect, was superior to what Tipperary could muster.

Tipp made the perfect start, going a goal and a point clear after less than four minutes. John O’Brien’s hard work and Lar Corbett’s pace and power yielded the goal and the point, after just 25 seconds, came from an Eoin Kelly ’65 gained after Cusack got his body in front of a Diarmuid Fitzgerald shot.

Notably, while Kelly was to contribute seven points, his overall influence was largely confined to his accuracy from placed balls. And, in the context of what might have been expected of him, his impact was negligible because of the good covering of the Cork backs, and particularly Brian Murphy for the time he marked him. Additionally, Sean Óg Ó hAilpin cleared an amount of ball outside him and Jerry O’Connor did invaluable work in a supporting role. Ronan Curran, too, was to hurl very steadily against a determined Ger O’Grady.

Cork calmly soaked up the early pressure, picked off a few scores and when Brian Corcoran goaled in the 12th minute, they secured a lead which they weren’t to surrender until Tipp drew level just before the break. And, the fact that the home side never once managed to go in front was a further psychological blow to their hopes.

Tipperary’s backs were quite dependable, with Paul Curran and Conor O’Mahony both strong in the central positions. However, it was always a struggle to compete on even terms with the Cork midfield duo. While John O’Brien was quite useful on the left wing, John Carroll did some good work on the other side and Lar Corbett often made progress in the left corner, the fact is that their respective markers — John Gardiner, Sean Óg Ó hAilpín and team captain Pat Mulcahy were to achieve much more on balance.

It might have been a different story had Eoin Kelly been able to get the ball in the net in the 14th minute, from the only goal chance he got, but he didn’t get fully behind it and Cusack easily dealt with it. Eight minutes later Cusack did even better to defy Fitzgerald a second time after Corbett set him up. Kelly finished the half at full-forward but never got enough ball to seriously trouble Diarmuid O’Sullivan.

At the other end the Cork forwards were not having it all their own way either. Their forwards might have looked more confident on the ball — with Ben O’Connor indicating the threat with a superb 20th minute goal — but Tipp’s defensive play often limited their options. At the break the sides were level, Cork 2-6, Tipperary 1-9.

Tipperary, kept in their dressing room for a longer period, resumed with the wind to their backs, but it wasn’t to prove very advantageous. Cork opened more promisingly, putting over three points in nine minutes, with just one in reply, and a Timmy McCarthy move might have yielded a goal until he was heavily tackled by Eamonn Corcoran (for the only yellow card of the game). However, in another six minutes, Tipp were back on level terms, during a period when Paul Kelly was on the ball and looked rusty after his lay-off.

While the outcome was to remain in doubt until the very end, Tipperary maintained a strong challenge, except their missed chances were to prove costly. It was also noticeable Eoin Kelly wasn’t getting on the ball (now in the corner again and often outsmarted by Murphy, another star), but most significantly of all, they were not able to make progress at half-forward.

Ronan Curran was dominant even before O’Grady was withdrawn, Gardiner turned in a superlative performance and Ó hAilpin’s absolute dependability was crucial time and time again. Effectively, it was where the game was won and lost because while the champions were under pressure because of their inability to make the most of their chances up front, they severely limited Tipperary.

And, it was that which left them in the position where they were able to drive home their advantage with those two late scores from Murphy and Deane.

Scorers: Cork: J. Deane 0-8 (0-5 frees); B. O’Connor and B. Corcoran 1-1 each; J. Gardiner 0-2 (0-1 free); J. O’Connor and K. Murphy 0-1 each. Tipperary: E. Kelly 0-7 (0-4 frees, 0-2 (‘65’s); L. Corbett 1-1; J. O’Brien and J. Carroll 0-2 each; P. Kelly and B. Dunne 0-1 each.

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; B. O’Connor, B. Corcoran, J. Deane. Subs: N. Ronan for O’Connor (51st minute); K. Murphy (Sarsfields) for N. McCarthy (69th).

TIPPERARY: B. Cummins; D. Fanning, P. Curran, P. Ormonde; E. Corcoran, C. O’Mahony, H. Moloney; P. Kelly, S. McGrath; J. Carroll, G. O’Grady (capt.), J. O’Brien; E. Kelly, L. Corbett, D. Fitzgerald. Subs: J. Devane for O’Grady (55th minute); C. Morrissey for P. Kelly (61st); B. Dunne for O’Brien (65th); M. Webster for Moloney (71st).

*Attendance: 53,286 (last year 43,500, Páirc Uí Chaiomh).

Referee Dickie Murphy, handling his first final since 1999, kept a tight grip on the game and did an excellent job.