Cork breezed into the final of the Munster U21FC last night in Páirc Uí Rinn yet this comprehensive semi-final success over Clare was overshadowed by captain Rory O’Sullivan limping off in the first-half amidst fears he has torn his cruciate ligament for the second time in his career.
The Argideen Rangers player suffered the injury at the start of last season and missed out on Cork’s provincial U21 winning campaign. Last night served as his inter-county comeback but the midfielder was forced to bow out of action in the 19th minute after hurting his left knee in a challenge as he attempted a shot.
“It doesn’t look good at the moment,” admitted Cork manager John Cleary afterwards. “It’s very unfortunate for the player. He’s going for a scan today and we’ll learn more then. Cruciate is the fear as he was in a lot of pain coming off. But he’s okay now and we really don’t know.”
The theme of injures featured heavily in Cork’s night with Donal Óg Hodnett, a shining light in the triumphant Munster championship side last year, unable to start in attack from the off due to a knee problem and Ilen Rovers’ Dan McEoin slotted in as his replacement. Hodnett incurred a knee injury in training yet Cleary is hopeful he will recover in time for the trip to Tralee on April 11th for a final showdown against Kerry.
Apart from those personnel losses, this was a straightforward night’s work for Cork. They endured a tentative start to the game as Clare, sharpened by the benefits of a first round win over Limerick, stormed into a 1-2 to 0-3 lead by the 20th minute. The Banner’s principal attacking weapon in the first-half was the towering frame of Darren O’Neill who they positioned at the edge of the square. He posed difficulties for the Cork defence with his ability to claim aerial possession and after firing a fine point in the 3rd minute, he raised a green flag nine minutes later when rising at the back post to fist a sideline ball to the net.
Alongside him, the trickery of Cathal McInerney surfaced on occasions and the Cratloe player nearly grabbed a second goal for Clare in the first-half, only for his shot to be deflected wide after a mazy run.
However, Cork defender Alan Cronin stuck diligently to his task and kept McInerney scoreless from play in the second-half.
By the interval Cork had turned the match firmly in their favour with a devastating burst of 1-6 without reply. Jamie Wall’s composed finish to the net kick-started the scoring spree and as Cleary rightly pointed out after, it was the twin attacking blades of John O’Rourke and Brian Hurley that cut the deepest wounds into the Clare defence thereafter. Between them, O’Rourke and Hurley struck 0-9 from play, and their assured kicking was vital to Cork’s recovery.
Clare needed a swift flurry of scores after the break to vault them back into contention and while McInerney curled over an early free, Cork soon put the game to bed. A dynamic team move involving Ruairí Deane and Kevin Hallissey released Luke Connolly in the 33rd minute and the Nemo Rangers player billowed the net with a powerful finish. O’Rourke swung over a wonderful brace of points after that and although Clare carved open the Cork rearguard with a brilliant team move, Micheal Malone’s goalbound drive flashed wide.
From there to the end, the match was a procession for Cork. Despite O’Neill giving Clare an edge in the middle of the park with his height, substitute Eoin Healy’s tenacity ensured Cork frequently claimed primary possession. Mark Sugrue planted the ball in the net with his left foot for the Rebels’ third goal in the 45th minute to conclude the contest. In the closing stages, Cleary emptied his bench with Brian O’Driscoll enjoying the rare distinction of sampling Cork U21 action while still being eligible for the minor ranks this year. The Cork boss is looking forward to a final date with the Kingdom yet is hoping his players’ schedule before that will be cleared.
“I’m pleading with people there to give these lads a chance to prepare. Five of them had a championship game last Saturday and I don’t think it’s fair they’d a game again tonight. A Munster U21 final is a big game in their careers. We’ll be looking for the weekend before it free and we hope we’ll get it.”
Scorers for Cork: L Connolly 1-2 (0-1f), J O’Rourke 0-5, B Hurley 0-4, M Sugrue 1-1, J Wall 1-0, K Hallissey, D McEoin, D Drake 0-1 each.
Scorers for Clare: D O’Neill 1-1, C McInerney 0-2 (0-1f), P Dillon, S O’Driscoll, S Malone 0-1 each
CORK: S Mellet; D O’Donovan, D Cahalane, A Cronin; J Cronin, T Clancy, J Wall; R O’Sullivan, R Deane; K Hallissey, M Sugrue, J O’Rourke; D McEoin, L Connolly, B Hurley.
Subs: E Healy for O’Sullivan (inj) (19), B O’Driscoll for J Cronin (46), D Drake for Hurley (49), D Nation for Deane (51), C O’Sullivan for O’Donovan (54).
CLARE: W De Loughery; E Ralph, E Malone, M O’Connor; S Malone, S Collins, S Tierney; K O’Connor, C Ryan; E Finnucane, S Brennan, M Malone; C McInerney, D O’Neill, P Collins.
Subs: M O’Shea for Ryan (38), S O’Driscoll for M Malone (38), C O’Brien for M O’Connor (43), P Dillon for P Collins (46), R Linnane for Finnucane (52).
Referee: Padraig O’Sullivan (Kerry)
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