Cork pack lethal counterpunch

Yesterday was tough, in more ways than one. I wasn’t in Thurles because I watched the game from the RTÉ studios in Montrose. It felt weird but, in another way, it was easier. 

Cork pack lethal counterpunch

I had no-one shouting in my ear. I was able to study the game closer. I had access to instant replays. And I didn’t have that bitter smell of defeat hanging in the air afterwards.

I watched the match with Michael Duignan, Des Cahill, Galway camogie player Anne-Marie Hayes, and Rory O’Neill, ‘The Sunday Game’ producer. Rory is a proud Cork man. It felt strange to be going to battle with him, but I still feel so privileged to have the opportunity to study and talk about hurling in the way I do.

Sometimes, the schedules just clash, but that didn’t dilute my passion and enthusiasm for a Clare win. When Conor McGrath got the goal, I jumped up off my seat and knocked cups of coffee and water clean off the table. I was only above in Dublin, but I almost felt like the diaspora all over the world must feel when they’re watching their county and they’re so desperate to be there with them.

Cork were impressive. They deserved to win, but it was a funny kind of game, because Clare never really performed and they still had chances to win the game. Clare missed four goal chances. Cork got one and took it. You wouldn’t have expected Alan Cadogan to miss it, either, because he was electric all afternoon.

It wasn’t a great Munster final, but that won’t bother anyone in Cork, because they have won a great Munster championship. The achievement of beating Tipperary, Waterford, and Clare is all the more impressive, considering they weren’t rated before the championship. It is huge testament to Kieran Kingston and his management that they did it in such style too.

I don’t want in any way to be taking away from Kieran and the lads, but you have to acknowledge Gary Keegan’s influence too yesterday. When the Irish Boxing team were ruling the world, one of their defining traits was how, anytime they got hit with a hard punch, they rebounded off the ropes and countered with an even harder shot. That was Cork in a nutshell yesterday; whatever Clare threw at them, they took it, and gave it back just as hard.

Clare will have regrets. It wasn’t so much a game that got away, because both teams played around the same level, but Cork pushed on when Clare were still holding back. Clare were nearly so caught up on Anthony Nash’s puckouts that they repeatedly allowed him to hit his full-back line, who drove forward, and launched quality ball in the Cork attack.

Even when Clare intercepted those long balls, the Clare wing-forwards were too deep to get back up the field and help the other Clare forwards. I’d love if Clare had been less tactically structured and just had more of a go. Cork only created one goal chance, but I still feel we should have trusted ourselves more to go man-for-man with Cork. Conor Cleary did a right good job on Conor Lehane, without much cover, so Clare proved that they could match-up better individually than they maybe thought.

You can’t underestimate match fitness either. Cork had two huge wins under their belt. Clare had been average against Limerick, which was five weeks ago. The decision to play Oisin O’Brien, who was just back from long-term injury, as a man-marker on Cadogan also backfired.

Clare only began to express themselves fully in a ten-minute patch near the end, before Cork finished strongly again. Clare have to put this disappointment behind them quickly now because it’s either Tipperary or Waterford next. Both were impressive in different ways on Saturday evening. When Kilkenny drew level, everyone around me was saying that Waterford had completely lost their shape, that they’d blown it again, and were about to blow it in extra-time. I didn’t think that was fully accurate. I thought they were holding their shape well, but that the goal from TJ Reid, a kind of pushover try the Lions would have been proud of in Eden Park, spooked them. When they conceded the point straight afterwards, Kilkenny had the momentum and it was natural for all the old doubts to flood back for Waterford. But once they steadied themselves in extra-time, they drove on.

You have to give it to Kilkenny. They’re like an old rock band, well past their sell-by date, but still able to bang out classics. You’d still pay big-money for a ticket to see them in concert. You couldn’t but be delighted for Waterford and their supporters, but there is something about the drama Kilkenny bring to the championship that will be missed for the rest of the year.

They looked dead and buried. Any other team would have been, but Kilkenny are not any other team, and never have been under Brian Cody. It looked to me like they just went for broke when they were seven points down. Brian Cody put Colin Fennelly back in full-forward, he shoved Mick Fennelly further up the field, and Kilkenny just went hunting for the goal to try and save them. When they got it, all bets were off.

Saturday night, though, was just epic in every way. I was sitting beside Tommy Guilfoyle, my old Clare team-mate. When I saw Pauric Mahony going off. I said to Tommy that Waterford may regret that decision if the match comes down to a late free. It did. Maurice Shanahan missed it and then, the great symphony that is hurling, Maurice, came up with the sweetest note of all with his goal in extra-time.

The game provided the noise and colour and adrenaline of a dance rave but the curtain-raiser was like a dark soul-music session, with only one team playing the jazz. Tipperary weren’t even anywhere near back to their best, but they cruised through the game, because Dublin were just terrible.

Tipp still have issues. I’m not sure about James Barry at corner-back and Joe O’Dwyer at half-back, but Tipp were never really discomfited, because Dublin were so out of their depth. You just can’t plunge that many young fellas into the deep end, without enough lifeguards around them. It’s like throwing them off the 40-foot in Dalkey and expecting them to come straight back up. You just need the experienced heads around them to escort them back to the shore.

‘Dotsy’ O’Callaghan was as defiant as ever when he came on, but too many Dublin players gave up the ghost. We had bad days too when I was Dublin manager, but Saturday was a different level of a beating for Dublin hurling. Tipp could have had 10 goals, only for some fine Conor Dooley saves.

It was sad for myself to see the Dubs getting beaten by that much, but the entertainment provided by Kilkenny and Waterford helped ease the disappointment.

When I sat into my car at 9.30pm, it was still 21 degrees. The sweat was steaming out through my pores. My heart was still racing. My head was buzzing. I just said to myself, “please don’t let this summer end”.

Even after the disappointment of yesterday’s result, I really hope it doesn’t.

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