When yesterday’s Munster hurling final ended, the supporters in red and white — the majority of those in the 45,558 attendance — streamed onto the Semple Stadium turf, mobbing the Cork hurlers who had just seen Clare off for a first Munster title since 2014.
The significant facts of the game will probably soon be lost in myth — Conor McGrath’s cracking goal, which hinted at a grandstand finale; Mark Coleman’s sweetly struck sideline point just when Cork needed it, emphatic as an exclamation point; and Damien Cahalane’s lung-bursting drive from his own square to the other half with time almost up.
What will remain with the Cork supporters, a significant presence even for the minor clash — which Cork also won — was a clear sense of the turning of a page.
After years of disappointment and negativity, dreary insistence on long-time failure, squabbles, and finger-pointing, Cork are truly back.
Kieran Kingston’s remodelled side stuck to their now-established template and overcame Clare’s late rally to restore what, for many on Leeside, is as natural as the sun rising in the east: A young Cork side playing with pace to burn off their opponents in a hard-driving finish.
Kingston was his sober self at the final whistle, mind you. “We never panicked — in both games against Tipperary and Waterford, we’ve got different types of challenges thrown at us, goals came at very challenging times and we reacted well to them.
“We did the same today and that’s part of a team that’s maturing. You need that type of maturity and experience, albeit they’re young but they’re gelling together. It’s important that we keep this in context — you see the reaction of the Cork crowd out there, they’re starved of success.
“We had a similar reaction in 2014, we won a very good Munster championship down in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, but we got a lesson from Tipperary a few weeks later. We have to bear that in mind, as we let the players back to their clubs for the next couple of weeks, and then prepare for a semi-final. That was a very hard-learned lesson in 2014.”
There isn’t a field game in the world where creating room to operate is a key goal, and Cork, for all their youth and inexperience, remain capable of creating space like few other inter-county hurling teams.
Based on yesterday’s evidence, the open prairies of Croke Park will suit them. After swapping points early on, Alan Cadogan made the most of the room in front of him to turn his man 11 minutes in and fire in a goal from an acute angle in front of the red-and-white Town End, the kind of adrenaline boost that set Cork up for a dominant half.
Before the game there was a sustainable view about Clare that quality wasn’t a uniform trait on their team, and that in defence they might suffer. As it turned out, they conceded a string of scoreable frees due to the pressure Cork exerted: For much of the second half, for instance, the Leesiders could rely on Patrick Horgan’s metronomic free-taking to keep themselves ahead, such was the regularity with which Fergal Horgan blew his whistle.
There were questions during the game about Clare’s tactic of withdrawing on the Cork puckout, but Clare joint boss Donal Moloney made a reasoned defence of that approach at the final whistle.
“The strategy was, you push up or you withdraw, one or the other,” said Moloney.
“There can be no in-between because of the accuracy of his puckouts. We won a lot of his (Anthony Nash’s) puckouts and we probably weren’t really too disturbed, to be honest, with (Damien) Cahalane getting them in the left corner-back position and coming down along the sideline. It’s the ball that dips down the centre that you want to cut out.
“But fair play, Nash is a quality keeper and he brought a whole array of puckouts on a level for other keepers in the country to follow. Fair play to him, but we were happy with regard to how we did on their puck-outs and also on our own. We won 60% of our own puckouts.”
However, Cork were able to dictate deliveries through Nash’s short puckouts to Cahalane. He in turn delivered long ball into the left corner of the Cork attack, with his teammates revolving into that zone and picking up cheap frees all through the second half.
For Clare, Tony Kelly was certainly back to his impressive best, hitting good points and ranging around the middle of the field to good effect. After a long, long club season, Moloney and Gerry O’Connor have that positive to take into their All-Ireland quarter-final in two weeks time, but they’ll have concerns to address also.
A disastrous run of four wides in the second half — punctuated by a good Colm Galvin point from distance — allowed Cork to open a seven-point gap.
If even two of those efforts had drifted inside the post it would have given Clare a terrific platform when Conor McGrath struck for a super goal with a quarter of the game left. Kelly followed up with a point that cut Cork’s lead to two. But Cork hit two fine points, from Cadogan and Horgan, and kept themselves ahead to the whistle.
This is now becoming a well-established pattern for Kingston’s team — shipping a punch, shaking the head, and countering with a couple of scores of their own.
The Tracton clubman was acute in pinpointing his side’s maturity.
They say in Spain that the bull learns more in five minutes inside the ring than a matador picks up in a lifelong career.
How much are Cork learning on the hoof?
There were plenty of other lessons for those watching yesterday, of course. The number of ‘false’ wides from both sides was noticeable — efforts to play the ball into the corners, to use absolutely every inch available, suggested teams anxious to test their theorems and angles in Croke Park. The discovery that referee Horgan appears to believe that laissez-faire is not just applicable in 19th-century economics.
Then there was the sideshow that refused to appear, between Cork selector Diarmuid O’Sullivan and Clare selector Donal Óg Cusack, lifelong friends and teammates for decades with Cork and Cloyne.
O’Sullivan patted John Conlon on the back when the Clare man collided with him pursuing a sliotar over the line, while Cusack had a word of encouragement for a Cork supporter taken out of the stands for medical attention. That was as exciting as it got.
Cork must now manage the lengthy lay-off to the All-Ireland semi-final better than they did three years ago, particularly as they will encounter even more significant tests then.
Have as many teams ever begun to strike form at the same time in the championship? Saturday night we saw Tipperary’s ruthless dismissal of Dublin and Waterford’s win over Kilkenny, eventual but emphatic; two sides enjoying key players finding their range to devastating effect.
Factor in a smoothly progressing Galway and a fiery Wexford (who will probably bring 25,000 pikemen and -women to Cork for the All-Ireland quarter-final) and the closing stages of the hurling championship look like a genuine test. For Cork to be present in that company shows how much of a journey they’ve taken in a couple of short months.
How much further can they travel? How much further do they believe they can?