I texted Mark Landers after the Clare-Cork game on Saturday evening to congratulate him. He texted back straight away. “Jeez, it was nearly like 1995 all over again.”
It wasn’t but the ending was almost as dramatic.
Back then, Clare rescued a seemingly impossible position with an Ollie Baker goal with almost the last play. When Tony Kelly went through on goal in the dying moments on Saturday, that image of Baker and the dam of mayhem his score unleashed flashed across my mind.
When TK initially won possession, you were wondering would he manage to eke out enough daylight to squeeze out the shot. When he took off like a rocket to engineer the space and opportunity to line up the target before he even pulled the trigger, I was only picturing the net bulging.
You can’t be critical of TK, especially the way he hurled, but if he hopped the ball off the ground, or put it either side of Patrick Collins, it would surely have been a goal.
On the other hand, you have to credit Collins with an unbelievable save. It was even more of a brilliant play considering the context and timing of the stop — it was game and season-saving heroics.
Hurling is just gas with what it can do to us, in how it can constantly assault our senses, make our hearts jump for joy and crash for sorrow in a handful of moments. Clare looked dead and buried deep into injury time and they still nearly won the game.
It wasn’t as dramatic earlier in the afternoon when Waterford looked home and hosed at half-time but they were still scrambling to stay alive after Galway’s late charge.
The game in Limerick was super stuff. Both teams deserve huge credit for the level of performance and commitment in that heat. Cork’s goals and their commitment to hunt for goals — they could have had six — was ultimately the difference. Jack O’Connor got one goal but he could have raised three green flags. We’re all talking this week about the power and pace of Kyle Hayes but it would be some Grade One sprint between Kyle and Jack.
Green flags have been Cork’s main source of energy in every one of the games they’ve won this year but you’d also have to say that Cork showed massive character throughout, especially when Clare got ahead of them in the fourth quarter. There have been plenty of times in the past when Cork would have buckled from that position but this team definitely look to be different.
That was obvious from their manic workrate and high tackle count throughout the game. Clare did get a lot of scores — as all teams nearly do now in the championship — but they were made to work extremely hard for every one of them. The quality of some of TK’s scores was breathtaking but they were more impressive considering the pressure he was under before getting off the strike.
Clare did manufacture plenty of scoring chances but it’s still hard to win any game at this level when you put so many bodies behind the ball. What’s more, you can’t set up that deep and still concede three goals, and almost ship six.
Clare were trying to create space upfront but the Cork defence were using their pace and class to get out in front when Clare tried to utilise that space. The long-ball option to Aaron Shanagher was always on but it wasn’t sticking because Robert Downey had such a brilliant game. Collins’ save was the defining moment but Downey’s outstanding block from Gary Cooney’s effort late on was a pivotal moment too. As a coach you’re always saying to your players: “Bodies on the line, lads.”
That was the absolute embodiment of that requirement, particularly in the circumstances.
Seamus Harnedy was man of the match but Downey surely ran him close. Harnedy showed all his class and experience. Another fella would have thrown his helmet into the stand after all the wides he hit but Harnedy stuck with it and the way he lifted his head to set up Shane Barrett’s goal was absolute genius.
That score looked to have finally ended the match as a contest but Clare dug in, as they have done all year, and the tension went to a whole new level as they chased it down. It would have been some way for Clare to win the match, while it would have been an absolutely disastrous way for Cork to lose the game from such a commanding position. But sometimes you just have to ride your luck, and ride out those swells and dips on such an ocean of high drama, tension, and excitement.
Earlier in the afternoon was a completely different type of game. The sides were even enough in the first quarter before Waterford cut loose in the second quarter. Waterford were brilliant in that period but Galway were awful.
The game looked to be over at half-time but Conor Gleeson’s sending off was always going to put Waterford under pressure the longer the game went on, especially in that heat. Waterford still looked like they were going to win it handy at the second water break but the bodies wilted and Galway finally found some energy. Galway threw everything at them but you’d still be asking where was that fight for the first three quarters. There will be some amount of soul searching done up there this week.
Joe Canning has taken over from Henry Shefflin as the highest scorer in championship history but that was the only high point in Galway from a season that carried so much expectation, especially after how they finished the league when putting up cricket scores against Waterford and Cork, and having beaten Limerick earlier in the campaign.
There was always going to be a big casualty — and a big fall-out — from whichever county lost this game but there will be even more black smoke and ash strewn around Galway after the manner of this performance. At least they didn’t throw in the towel when the game looked to be gone from them but that level of performance is just not good enough from a side with their talent and experience.
Waterford got some stick from not drilling Laois last weekend but maybe we were all too slow to give Laois more credit than they deserved. It also gave Waterford the chance to rinse the toxins of the Clare defeat out of their system and maybe Galway needed that type of a game last weekend to flush the Dublin defeat out of their system. Because there were huge traces of that Dublin defeat splashed all over Galway’s display.
Galway are better than that but this was a real statement from Waterford. Their desire to seek atonement from the Clare display was obvious but Waterford are also a much different team with Jamie Barron, who missed that opening day defeat. Barron was unreal on Saturday but Waterford had some big displays all over the field.
Liam Cahill is right back on the horse now again. He more or less said, after the Laois game, that despite reaching the All-Ireland final last year, it was his inexperience at that level that nearly saw his side caught by Laois. That was fairly refreshing to hear from an inter-county manager but it also underlined Cahill’s honesty, and why he demands so much of it off his players.
They needed that in abundance last week too against Laois, who delivered another big performance against Westmeath on Saturday evening to stay in Division 1 for next year. It was tough on Westmeath, who did most of the hurling for three quarters of the match, and were reduced to 14 men just before half-time. Westmeath still led by six points at the second water-break but Laois eventually reeled them in.
PJ Scully’s immense striking — he finished with 0-17 — was decisive but Laois’s spirit and character and resilience was ultimately the reason they got over the line. And for all the brilliant skill and class on show over the weekend, hurling is such a warrior sport that any battle can’t be won without traits which define any warrior.