Evolving Rebels are now genuine contenders

TWO headline stories from Semple Stadium on Sunday and the one that concerns Cork is, mercifully, free at last from clauses and caveats.

Evolving Rebels are now genuine contenders

No ifs and buts this time around about what might have ensued had it not been for, say, the sending off of a Henry Shefflin or a Ryan O’Dwyer. No furrow-browed investigation of, for instance, how Cork had conceded 25 scores and still not lost or taken 50 minutes to wake up against Waterford but contrived to survive.

No. This was the signal performance of JBM’s second managerial coming, a display of power and poise that left no threads hanging and rendered the only conceivable response as due recognition and a tip of the hat.

It wasn’t a case that Clare were so bad as to make Cork look good, or even that Cork were so good as to make Clare look bad.

Cork were immensely impressive, Clare dreadfully disappointing and that was the high and the low of it. Hurling isn’t always a zero-sum game, as was proven twice last September. But on Sunday it was.

Let’s mark it down as the first big statement of Championship 2014. Limerick’s defeat of Tipperary was a declaration in a minor key. Kilkenny versus Offaly didn’t count as a statement for obvious reasons. Dublin’s exhibition of maturity against Wexford on Saturday night was more a personal affirmation of well-being. This, however, was a shout from the rooftops, accompanied by a blare of trumpets. Ladies and gentlemen, we now have serious All-Ireland contenders. What’s more, we now have a better Cork team than last year. The latter development is more newsworthy than the former.

Their 2-23 was nicely congruent with their 0-28 of the Waterford replay and marked the third time in as many outings they’d hit more than 20 points. A straw in the wind and a notable one, because potential All-Ireland champions break the 20-point barrier every time they take the field. Part of the reason Cork aren’t currently All-Ireland champions is because they couldn’t manage more than 16 points in either instalment at Croke Park nine months ago.

As of now they even have forwards to burn, not to mention forwards who’ll burn you, what with Paudie O’Sullivan repeating his party trick of the previous Sunday by coming on and scoring with his first touch. None of them take too much out of the ball, which also helps, and if Patrick Cronin only caught the eye in the closing quarter, a rerun of the video may show Seamus Harnedy doing more work than was apparent at the time. Sometimes you pay your way by working so hard that the guy marking you cannot pay his.

Alan Cadogan, meanwhile, like the Maradona of World Cups past, is on course to become the most fouled player of the championship. As for Patrick Horgan, pictured left, well, to rework an observation made here on Saturday, it’s not too early to say that the race for Hurler of the Year is underway and it’s not too early to say that Horgan is leading it.

And then there was Aidan Walsh.

For any team facing Clare, a primary initial requirement is athleticism in the middle of the field. Winning the battle between the two 50s, or at any rate not losing it, means the champions, unable to force turnovers, cannot thereafter pick their passes. It is from such up-field sorties as Walsh made in the 57th minute that crumbs like Horgan’s penalty come about, and five minutes after that, Walsh was back deep in defence, blocking off a dangerous hanging centre aimed for Podge Collins. In two of his three appearances to date, Walsh has given Cork what they lost when Darren Sweetnam departed, except with added hurling skill and a more capacious box-to-box engine.

THE most arresting prospective plotline of the summer has been consigned to the wood chipper. Clare and Kilkenny, the new and the old, will not clash in September as respective provincial champions. In the losers’ defence it can be argued that the Waterford replay brought Cork on a ton. While that’s indisputable, it still doesn’t absolve the Clare management of their gravest deficiency on Sunday: their failure to produce a team that were hopping off the ground.

The faithful were entitled to expect the sight of champions wearing their new garb with regal bearing. It didn’t happen and after the opening 20 minutes, it never looked like it. Clare were supposed to be on a war footing; they weren’t. Half a step slower, half a beat less hungry trying to prosecute a game predicated on being fitter and faster, on getting bodies into the breach and taking it from there.

It was the third time in living memory the county made an initial defence of theMacCarthy Cup and it was by far their weakest effort. Contrast Sunday with 1996, when on a breathless, baking afternoon at the Gaelic Grounds, they threw several kitchen sinks at Limerick, only to tire at the death and succumb to Ciarán Carey’s point from the end of the world. Contrast it with 1998, when they ground down Cork in Thurles urged on by a manager whose demeanour on the sideline that day was of such fixed, maniacal intensity that bystanders pronounced themselves almost frightened.

It is always handy in a post-mortem to be able to zero in on a particular incident and flaunt it as an emblem of the losers’ failings. Our example today, children, is Horgan’s first goal. The Clare of 2013 would have been so tuned in as to gather mob-handed around the sliotar and delay things; the Clare of last Sunday were so tuned out that it didn’t occur to a single one to stand in front of the free and make a nuisance of himself. Were they under the impression that the Nash Rule contained a Congress-sanctioned sub-section to the effect that the only man allowed take a close-range free for Cork was the goalkeeper and that Horgan — the guy who, you know, takes all the other frees — couldn’t possibly be so ungentlemanly as to have a goal rather than a point in mind? The cad.

A knife produced with a silent hiss from a back pocket is infinitely preferable to a blunderbuss that can be seen coming from a mile off. Horgan’s two goals signal the end of the Nash circus and that’s no bad thing for everyone either, Nash included. One can almost hear JBM’s exhalation of relief.

Bottom line, far too many among Clare’s number didn’t play near well enough, Colm Galvin in the first half a glowing exception. Shane O’Donnell, pictured left, was missed; manfully though he tried, Peter Duggan was not a natural fit up front. The rest largely 6 out of 10s. What was lost, other than one match? Not a lot but something; a degree of shimmer, perhaps. Clare will not be front-door champions in 2014. It is not the end of their — perfectly legitimate — dreams of a few years of domination, but it is a big blow. The mantle of champions brings duties and cares whose breadth they may only have fully realised yesterday morning.

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