The overriding feeling after yesterday’s provincial showcase is that the open draw in Munster is a flawed system that sends its champions ill-prepared into All-Ireland quarter-finals.
Clare were brave and spirited? Of course they were, but they hardly merit or would want praise for that.
They’re a Division 4 side for a reason. They were sloppy in good positions, and beating teams like that gives you bad habits. Conor Counihan beware.
What could Cork do? They could ensure they were not back on their heels in the early stages and their three first-half goals put that fear to one side.
But it did not feel like a Munster final for the fans, nor the players. I understand and accept the points made by the likes of Waterford’s Gary Hurney, but the weakness of Munster as a province devalues the merit of an open draw championship. Even the second weakest province of Connacht has four teams that will beat each other on any given day.
In that scenario, an open draw can, and regularly does, create novelty and competitive fixtures.
Unless Cork and Kerry avoid each other, Munster is nearly always going to have a lopsided Munster final. The consequences of yesterday’s game I have already spelled out — but does it do anything more for Clare than it would if they’d faced up to Cork in the semi-final?
No one is going to tell me playing in a near deserted Gaelic Grounds will live in the memory of those Clare footballers for too long.
Where it does have a significant impact is in the bank account of the Munster Council and on its ability to grant aid the development of football in weaker counties.
Less than 10,000 yesterday, and a moderate crowd of just over 22,000 for Cork-Kerry in the semi final. Had the latter been a final, you would have had between 30,000 and 40,000 depending on what it was up against. You are talking about €250,000 of a difference from one game.
Sport is all about aspiring to the levels of the top teams. No one ever complains that Kilkenny should be handicapped. The trick is to close the gap all the time.
At this moment, an open draw in Munster is bringing down the standards, not lifting them. And it is further devaluing an already threatened provincial championship format.
There is one upside for Clare, of course.
They now go into the last round of the qualifiers but, in truth, they will be out of their depth at that juncture. In Ger Brennan, they had the best of the four starting midfielders yesterday, but I expected to see a lot more of David Tubridy — certainly a lot more of him closer to goal.
That Clare created so many goal chances in the second half should be a concern to Cork, and would have been, had Clare made the correct choices and been any way clinical. I know how Counihan is thinking: Cork may not have conceded a goal yet in the championship, but they might have let in six or seven at this stage. That they haven’t is down to bad Kerry finishing, poor Clare decisions, a great save or two and some desperate last-ditch defending. Hmm.
Graham Canty’s absence yesterday means he will be without a competitive game from the beginning of June to the start of August. I thought it would be a problem in 2010, and it wasn’t, but that body is also two years older now.
Cork concerns are at the back. That is where they will be found out, if that is to happen. Remember that they will go practically stone cold into Croke Park, with its size and width — another reason why the present Munster format doesn’t work. Of course, the provinces do not control the All-Ireland element of the championship.
If Croke Park feels bound to persist with this system, can they not incentivise the provincial championships? Ensure the four winners have home games in the last eight, for instance (I think money might be the reason that one doesn’t stand a cat’s chance in hell).
Counihan has work to do with that defence, and the options are not as plentiful as they are in attack, where three of the five subs were introduced yesterday.
If Ciarán Sheehan, Patrick Kelly, Paul Kerrigan, Colm O’Neill, Nicholas Murphy and Donncha O’Connor were to start the quarter-final, Cork would still have Daniel Goulding, Fintan Goold, Barry O’Driscoll, Mark Collins and one or two others to call on. And that’s not even counting Pearse O’Neill.
The subtle shift in letting the ball into moving forwards earlier is also helping. Nicholas Murphy is a predictable but essential tool in an attacking sense, but earlier ball gives the speedy and energetic Cork forwards many more opportunities to create their own space and do damage. And it makes Cork less predictable.
I know aesthetics are not a pre-requisite for championship success but it has also made Cork an awful lot easier on the eye this season.
No one underlines that more than Ciarán Sheehan and Donncha O’Connor up front. Sheehan, like Daniel Goulding, will benefit from this game but, in the long term, his fitness, and that of O’Connor, is essential if Cork are still standing come September.