Sunday, September 8
GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final 2013
Clare v Cork, Croke Park, 3.30pm (Live on RTÉ)
So, a championship that began with the low-key meeting of Antrim and Westmeath in Mullingar on May 5, which had 15 starters and produced 28 games, which simmered and then bubbled over into something magical, has finally been reduced to this - the All-Ireland final between Cork and Clare at Croke Park on Sunday.
It’s been an utterly, gloriously bonkers summer of hurling, but who in their right mind would have predicted that the two teams who met in the Allianz Hurling League Relegation play-off back in April would face each other once again five months later with the Liam MacCarthy Cup on the line?
Cork v Clare
Last Five Clashes
2013: Cork 0-23 Clare 0-15 (Munster)
2008: Cork 2-19 Clare 2-17 (Q-F)
2007: Cork 1-18 Clare 1-11 (Munster)
2006: Cork 0-20 Clare 0-14 (S-F)
2005: Cork 0-16 Clare 0-15 (S-F)
And who would have guessed that for the first time since 2005, the tiger stripes of Kilkenny would be conspicuous by their absence on All-Ireland final day?
It’s been that kind of summer. A summer of transformation for the game, when two managers who dared to think big, to challenge the notion that breaking the hegemony at the top of the game was not just about outmuscling Kilkenny, Tipperary and Galway but more about out-thinking them, and more importantly about outplaying them.
When Jimmy Barry- Murphy’s running game meets Davy Fitzgerald’s superbly conceived passing game, something will have to give in what is the first all-Munster All-Ireland final since 1997, when Clare beat Tipperary.
Clare have been back to an All-Ireland final since, in 2002, but under Fitzgerald, and with the finest collection of young hurlers in the country available to him, there is a real sense that the good times are back in the Banner County.
Cork, too, have been away from the top table for some time, the 2006 final defeat to Kilkenny their last All-Ireland final appearance. Only Tom Kenny, Brian Murphy and Shane O’Neill are still involved in the Cork set-up from that day, adding to the sense of renewal and freshness that has defined the summer.
Cork are aiming for a 31st All-Ireland title and have a rare chance to close the gap on Kilkenny, who lead the way on 34. Clare are going for All-Ireland title number four to add to the ones the Banner County claimed in 1914, 1995 and 1997.
This will be the 48th championship meeting between the sides, with Cork having won 33 of those, Clare 11 while there have been three draws. This year alone, the sides have faced each other four times – in the season-opening Waterford Crystal Cup, twice in the Allianz League and, of course, in the semi-final of the Munster Championship.
Clare prevailed by 0-31 to 2-23 in a cracking relegation play-off on April 14, condemning Cork to the second tier of the Allianz League. When they met again in the Munster Championship 70 days later, it was Cork who gained revenge with a 0-23 to 0-15 victory at the Gaelic Grounds.
The stars of the show for the Rebels that day were the then relatively unknown Séamus Harnedy, who hit 0-3 from play on his debut, and Cork’s go-to forward Patrick Horgan, who started his campaign with eight points (0-5f) and has now accumulated 1-30 over the course of the summer.
Key to Cork’s success that day was the man-marking job veteran defender Brian Murphy did on the influential Tony Kelly. The Bride Rovers man, who has made a dramatic return to Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s side after breaking a collar bone in a club game in June, will be expected to reprise that role on Sunday. Tom Kenny is the player to make way at wing-back in the only change to the Cork team from the one that faced Dublin in the semi-final.
Clare have yet to name their team, but Davy Fitzgerald is likely to keep faith with the same XV that overcame Limerick in their semi-final.
Whether Murphy tracks Kelly is just one of the fascinating subplots in what is likely to be an intriguing tactical battle. In an interview with GAA.ie this week, former Cork star Seán Óg Ó hAilpín considered some of the key areas.
"I think Cork will probably do a mirror image of Clare. They'll have a sweeper guy deployed in the Cork back line because I think Clare want a five man forward line because if there's one thing they're good at, they're good at using the expansive ground of Croke Park. They've a couple of flyers in the forward line, so Cork will be using their extra man back there to fill up the spaces and clog up ball going into spaces.
"The winning of the game is which team utilises their extra man better. I think the key to that is the middle of the pitch because basically what happens is, you can nullify the extra man in the backline if you have time and space to pinpoint passes. Usually the trouble comes when, if you can't pinpoint passes, and you're under pressure to get a shot out, and you can't look at where you're hitting, nine times out of 10 the ball goes to the extra man.”
In the three All-Ireland finals Kilkenny and Tipperary played out between 2009 and 2011, and to an extent in last year’s draw and replay, the games were won by the team that brought the greater desire, savagery and intensity on the day; on Sunday, while all those factors will still play a part, it should be a more open and expansive game.
Anyone who has seen Cork and Clare in action this year will know we could be in for a classic. And what better way to round off a mad-cap summer of hurling than with one last helping of what Donal Óg Cusack described in his GAA.ie column earlier this week as “stone-mad, adventurous and skillful hurling”.
Cork: A Nash; S McDonnell, S O'Neill, C O'Sullivan; B Murphy, C Joyce, W Egan; L McLoughlin, D Kearney; S Harnedy, P Cronin, C Lehane; L O'Farrell, P Horgan, J Coughlan.