Cork 1-20 Clare 1-8: Perhaps we were all expecting a bit too much.
Tipperary’s rousing U21 odyssey and some bullish talk in the last fortnight, combined with a tricky list of Cork injuries might have coloured our expectations of Clare in yesterday’s Munster SFC semi-final.
To be fair, they almost matched Tipperary’s rousing start 80 miles to the north: no sooner had the ball been thrown in when their captain, midfielder Gary Brennan, grabbed possession and careered through the heart of the Cork defence with a green flag on his mind — his shot flashed a foot wide with the anthem still echoing through the stands.
That was hard to remember in the dying minutes, though, when Cork had established a 14-point gap, even if Clare cut that to 12 before the final whistle. A round dozen points the difference, then: talk of a revolution in Munster football gone quiet for another 12 months, and the natural order restored.
Cork, the Division 1 team, settled into a rhythm after ten minutes and their intensity and work-rate meant Clare were under huge pressure, particularly at the back.
More than once the Banner were hustled and harried into cheap turnovers deep in their own half, and their defence was forced to concede scoreable frees to the unerring Donncha O’Connor and Colm O’Neill.
Further back the field Alan O’Connor managed to look like he’d never been away, linking the play well and bringing some welcome heft to the Rebel midfield, while Brian O’Driscoll and Michael Shields were energetic and industrious in defence.
Encouragement for Cork everywhere? Look again.
Cork took the lead after five minutes and never relinquished it, but their manager Brian Cuthbert wasn’t slow to point to spots of rust in the red machine afterwards. Clare worked at least four clear-cut goal chances, for instance. The best two were Brennan’s, at the start of the first half, and wing-forward Keelan Sexton’s at the start of the second period.
At half-time it was 0-10 to 0-4: if Sexton’s fine drive had found its way to the net then Cork would have faced energised opponents for the remainder of the game.
Clare weren’t done making inroads there, either. Cork hit four points on the bounce after the Sexton miss, through Donncha O’Connor, Paul Kerrigan, Colm O’Neill and Mark Collins, which gave them a 10-point cushion. But the visitors were able to make ground up the middle of the Cork defence time and again. Little wonder their manager, Sean Collins, bemoaned the profligacy of his forwards.
“I was with the stats guys in the stand, and the only area where there’s a glaring difference between the two teams was shooting efficiency. At one stage theirs was up at 70 percent, while ours was at 20 percent.
“That’s not the final tally, but that’s a big difference, end of story. You have to put your chances away against the Division 1 teams. If you don’t you’re in deep trouble.”
There were positives for Collins: he lauded his full-back line for shackling Brian Hurley and Colm O’Neill, for instance.
Cork’s recognised danger men, apart from one speculative effort from O’Neill in the first half, didn’t have a clear-cut goal chance during the game.
Cathal O’Connor finally managed a goal for Clare on 53 minutes, but Donncha O’Connor converted a penalty expertly five minutes later to restore Cork’s advantage.
At full-time those Clare goal chances were a hot topic for Cuthbert: “Being honest, they probably had more chances than we’d have liked, but while they were put under pressure for the point chances, some of the goal chances... I won’t say it was easier to score than to miss, but you’d have expected them to hit the target and to put us under huge pressure.
“That’s a huge bone of contention to us leaving the game, that we gave Clare those chances. I would have expected us to be tight enough not to give them away. We’ll have to look at those again.” No prizes for guessing the ravenous forward line the Cork boss had in mind when speaking.
Kerry would hardly spurn the opportunities presented yesterday in Páirc Uí Rinn and Cork’s defence, though enterprising and adventurous, will need tweaking before Killarney. The men in red know, however, that the expectation on that day will weigh on those in the other dressing-room in Fitzgerald Stadium.
Scorers for Cork:
D. O’Connor (1-5, 1-0 pen, 3 frees); C. O’Neill (0-5, 3 frees); Brian O’Driscoll, M. Collins, P. Kerrigan, J. Hayes (1 free) (0-2 each); B. Hurley, F. Goold (0-1 each).
CORK: K. O’Halloran, J. Loughrey, M. Shields (c), S. Cronin, C. Dorman, Brian O’Driscoll, Barry O’Driscoll, A. O’Connor, K. O’Driscoll, C. O’Driscoll, M. Collins, P. Kerrigan, C. O’Neill, D. O’Connor, B. Hurley.
Subs for Cork: P. Kelly for Hurley, 48; R Deane for A. O’Connor, 53 and F. Goold for C. O’Driscoll, both 53; T. Clancy (Fermoy) for Dorman, 56; J. Hayes for D. O’Connor, 59; P. Kelleher for O’Neill, 67.
Scorers for Clare:
C. O’Connor (1-2, 1 ‘45’); G. Brennan (0-2); J. Malone, P. Burke, D. Ryan and D. O’Halloran (0-1 each).
CLARE: J. Hayes, C. Russell, K. Hartnett, M. McMahon, S. Hickey, G. Kelly, D. Ryan, G. Brennan (c), C. O’Connor, K. Sexton, J. Malone, S. Collins, P. Burke, R. Donnelly, E. Cleary.
Subs for Clare: C. Dunning for Donnelly, HT, C. O’Dea for E. Cleary 52; D. O’Halloran for P. Burke, 56.
J. McQuillan (Cavan)
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