The Munster crown weighed heavy on Cork’s head last year but it shouldn’t be a burden this time around. Eight games unbeaten in this competition, they are most certainly the best the province have to offer and go forth to an All-Ireland semi-final in four weeks with no little amount of confidence.
It might be five years since they last won in Croke Park and their two Championship defeats there since have come by way of 10 and 11 points but there is no reason to be fearful of their next visit.
Not when they have been Munster kingpins across two formats, last year’s knock-out and this summer’s round-robin, and not when they have shown they can win in different ways.
Last year’s final victory over Clare, when Cork never went behind, was a far more comprehensive result even if Ian Galvin’s late goal yesterday falsified just how close matters were before that. But then here they had to absorb the brutish blows John Conlon had landed upon them in the opening half.
With 13 of last year’s starting team again taking to the field (Alan Cadogan and Stephen McDonnell the absentees), Cork’s maturity manifested itself in a 13-point turnaround.
Clare had only three scorers in the opening 57 minutes but for the majority of that time the statistic didn’t matter. What Conlon, Peter Duggan and David Reidy contributed among them had been good enough to put Clare eight points ahead going into first-half additional time.
But by the time Colm Galvin joined the party, it seemed like it was too much responsibility on too few shoulders.
Sub Conor McGrath became their fifth scorer in the 57th minute as he squared the game after Cork had struck five points without reply to go two points up.
But Conlon was a ghost of the player who looked like he could have beaten Cork on his own in the first half. His grand contribution in the second half was winning a free, which Duggan converted.
Duggan, though, sent four second-half balls wide, one of them following a free, which had inexplicably failed to pass Eoin Cadogan standing in front of him. It and Shane O’Donnell’s dismal shot after Anthony Nash had pucked the ball straight to him were symptomatic of a Clare second-half display that wasn’t a relation to the opening half.
As for the job done on silencing Conlon, Gerry O’Connor could only shrug and praise Cork: “That’s why they’re champions and worthy champions.
"The game is played over 75 minutes, we just weren’t able to get possession from our own puck-out as regularly as we were in the first half and as a result of that, there was a lot of ball being cut out by their half-back line and feeding their forward line.
This surely was a case of half-time coming at the best time for Cork. Eight down in the 35th minute, they had halved the deficit by the half.
Seamus Harnedy had caught from a puck-out and delivered to Luke Meade for a goal that came against the run of play and when Mark Coleman followed it up with a sideline cut from distance 2-11 to 1-10 sure was a good damage limitation job.
The respite - Cork came back out onto the field several minutes later than Clare - allowed them to reconfigure as O’Connor explained, more so than Colm Spillane being switched onto Conlon and his original marker Damien Cahalane moving to take up O’Donnell.
Before that, the hill looked steep. Jamie Shanahan and Seadna Morey were sending ball in front of Conlon and he was taking Cahalane on a tour. Inside the opening 13 minutes, he had three points to his name, Duggan adding one from play and a free.
Their opening goal, which sent them 1-5 to 0-5 ahead, was a result of a lengthy Tony Kelly solo run being unchecked. Kelly offloaded the ball to Reidy and the considerable Clare hoards in the Killanin Terrace behind the posts rejoiced.
They had much to enjoy of that period as Podge Collins was earning frees - three of them - and Conlon was next to unmarkable. Patrick Horgan’s marksmanship kept Cork in touch but that was under threat when Clare claimed a second goal in the 33rd minute, Duggan getting a touch to a long delivery from a Donal Tuohy free.
Cork’s end to the half, though, gave them something to cling to and they began the second half in the same vein. A Harnedy shot was saved two minutes in but three Cork points followed and the margin was one.
Clare were rattled.
After Duggan penalised a foul on Conlon, Cork drove on with the next five scores.
While Kelly was slightly more prominent than the first half and Collins continued to beaver away, Clare’s endeavour was amounting to little and Cork’s decisive score came in the 59th minute, Harnedy finishing superbly after great work by Darragh Fitzgibbon and Bill Cooper.
Four points down, Kelly settled for a point in the 65th minute when he seemed to be put off by erring with his goal chance just seconds earlier.
Through Collins and Duggan, Clare remained within reach but their scores were answered by Cork equivalents and Horgan followed up a Cooper point with a free he had won.
Galvin’s stoppage time goal gave the remaining seconds an unlikely dramatic feel but Cork kept their heads to keep their title.
Scorers for Cork: P. Horgan (0-11, 6 frees, 1 65); S. Harnedy (1-4); L. Meade (1-1); D. Fitzgibbon, D. Kearney, M. Coleman (1 sideline) (0-2 each); C. Lehane , B. Cooper (0-1 each).
Scorers for Clare: P. Duggan (1-7, 6 frees); J. Conlon (0-5); D. Reidy (1-2); I. Galvin (1-0); P. Collins (0-2); C. Galvin, C. McGrath, T. Kelly (0-1 each).
CORK: A. Nash; C. Spillane, D. Cahalane, C. Spillane; C. Joyce, E. Cadogan, M. Coleman; D. Fitzgibbon, B. Cooper; L. Meade, P. Horgan, D. Kearney; S. Kingston, C. Lehane, S. Harnedy (c).
Subs for Cork: R. O’Flynn for S. Kingston (59); M. Cahalane for L. Meade (64); L. McLoughlin for D. Kearney (66); D. Brosnan for L. McLoughlin (blood 70+2 to f-t).
CLARE: D. Tuohy; P. O’Connor (c), D. McInerney, J. Browne; S. Morey, C. Cleary, J. Shanahan; C. Galvin, C. Malone; P. Duggan, T. Kelly, D. Reidy; P. Collins, J. Conlon, S. O’Donnell.
Subs for Clare: J. McCarthy for C. Malone (50); C. McGrath for S. O’Donnell (55); D. Corry for D. Reidy (63); I. Galvin for C. Cleary (68).
Referee: J. McGrath (Westmeath).
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