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Cork’s changes for the better

NOT quite astonishing, because it was close to being a carbon copy of what they achieved the previous week, but Cork’s victory in yesterday’s All-Ireland hurling quarter-final was no less extraordinary for that reason.

Principally because gallant Clare had prevailed in key areas of the field, more than the mere fact of having an eight points interval lead, serious questions were asked of Cork’s ability to come back. But, again they were answered with a stunning show of character, highlighted by vastly improved play in attack and a successful re-arrangement of the defence following the withdrawal of Diarmuid O’Sullivan.

This time there was no catalyst sparking a comeback, no single inspirational factor as there had been with the dismissal of Donal Óg Cusack against Galway. It was all about individual players lifting their game and the whole team raising its standard, which was required to keep pace with Clare’s continuing excellence. This saw them still five points clear in the 48th minute after goalkeeper Philip Brennan had the misfortune to give Cork a goal with an uncharacteristic error minutes after the resumption and Diarmuid McMahon gave them fresh hope by getting one back against Cusack.

Ultimately, what decided a tremendous contest was Cork’s superior scoring power, with both Kieran Murphy (Sarsfields) and Neil Ronan making valuable contributions after coming on and supplementing the efforts of Timmy McCarthy who had been introduced just before the break. In contrast, Clare didn’t have the resources to maintain their challenge at the same height.

To give manager Mike McNamara and his players credit, they made up for an unproductive first-half performance in the Munster final by settling into their rhythm much more quickly, even though they still hit seven wides inside the opening 20 minutes (and no more before the break). Cork fell behind to two early scores from Tony Carmody and Niall Gilligan and while they had the chance of a goal in the 11th minute after newcomer Patrick Horgan linked up with Ben O’Connor, it was lost when Brennan dashed off his line to get in a telling tackle.

It meant that Cork never once took the lead in the opening half (actually waiting until 11 minutes from the end of normal play before they managed it) and this was explained by the comparative levels of performance.In particular, Clare won an advantage in defence, with Gerry Quinn outstanding in the centre and Frank Lohan dominant against Joe Deane (who suffered from a poor service).

As the game developed, they showed a capacity to win continuous possession at midfield through the consistency of team captain Brian O’Connell and Colin Lynch (with Tom Kenny the more successful of the Cork pair) and they were also more lively in attack. Niall Gilligan gave great leadership, showing a capacity to beat O’Sullivan whenever he moved out from the square and achieving a high return from his free-taking. Likewise, Tony Carmody and Jonathan Clancy were sharper than they were against Tipperary, and Barry Nugent proved to be a good addition in the full-forward line.

Finding their best form in the second quarter, they continued to make progress while Cork suffered because of the pressure on their defence and the (consequent) inability to get enough decent ball up to their forwards. And, their spirited effort was given a huge boost when Nugent goaled in the 31st minute to open up a gap of eight points. At the break it was 1-11 to 0-6.

Even in the early minutes of the second half, they were signs of an upturn in Cork’s hurling, the first positive sign being evident in the dominant play of Ronan Curran, who had been largely anonymous up to then in a half-back line in which Sean Óg Ó hAilpín was again most prominent. It was to be noteworthy, too, that when appearing to pull a muscle after putting over a free in the very first minute, Ben O’Connor recovered to turn in yet another exhibition of skilful and crafty play.

Add in the energy of Timmy McCarthy in the centre, the industry of Patrick Cronin and the strong impact of Cathal Naughton and it showed how much more threatening the Cork attack was. And, that threat was further enhanced by the presence of Kieran Murphy who scored a goal immediately after coming on.

If Clare followers were upset by the concession of the 38th-minute goal to McCarthy (after Brennan let the ball slip through his legs), they were given fresh encouragement by Diarmuid McMahon’s goal nine minutes later when his momentum carried him into the Cork goalmouth and the ball trickled over the line.

From a stage where Cork had only been two points behind after vastly improved play, Gerald McCarthy’s team had to renew their challenge again and Kieran Murphy provided the spark with his goal in the 53rd minute. Now, the momentum was firmly with them and it saw them level within five minutes, through a Ben O’Connor point from play and a sweetly-struck 65 which had been harmlessly conceded by Brennan.

By now, John Gardiner was helping to shore up the defence following the withdrawal of O’Sullivan (having been continually exposed by Gilligan) and it was notable, too, that Tom Kenny was contributing hugely at right half-back.

When it mattered most it was Cork who had the power to surge in front, with the in-form Ronan putting them in front immediately after coming on and adding a second in injury time.

Scorers for Cork: B. O’Connor 0-7 (0-3 frees, 0-1 ’65); T. McCarthy and K. Murphy 1-0 each; P. Horgan 0-3; P. Cronin 0-2 and N. Ronan 0-2 each; N. McCarthy, J. Deane, J. O’Connor, T. Kenny and C. Naughton 0-1 each.

Clare: N. Gilligan 0-8 (0-5 frees, 0-1 ’65); B. Nugent and D. McMahon 1-1 each; T. Carmody and J. Clancy 0-2 each; G. Quinn (free), P. Donnellan and B. O’Connell 0-1 each.

CORK: D. Óg Cusack, S. O’Neill, D. O’Sullivan, B. Murphy; J. Gardiner (capt.), R. Curran, S. Óg Ó hAilpin; J. O’Connor, T. Kenny; P. Cronin, N. McCarthy, P. Horgan; B. O’Connor, J. Deane, C. Naughton.

Subs: T. McCarthy for N. McCarthy (inj, 35); K. Murphy (Sars) for O’Sullivan (51); N. Ronan for Deane (65).

CLARE: P. Brennan; G. O’Grady, F. Lohan, P. Vaughan; B. Bugler, G. Quinn, P. Donnellan; B. O’Connell (capt.), C. Lynch; T. Griffin, D. McMahon, T. Carmody; B. Nugent, N. Gilligan, J. Clancy.

Subs: A. Markham for Griffin (58); F. Lynch for Nugent (60); M. Flaherty for Carmody (68).

Referee: D. Murphy (Wexford).

Attendance: 37,812.