TEN minutes into Sunday’s second half, the sky’s belly rumbled with thunder and belched out bolts of lightning, before unleashing a Biblical downpour borrowed from the end of the world.
The rainstorm was so raw and relentless that a hurling match was reduced to a primal and feral scramble to stay alive in this championship.
The rain rattled so hard off the metal roofs of both stands that the ground became muted as both teams struggled to secure clean possession and maintain their slick stick-passing game. Clare worked harder than Cork but it was still a huge tribute to both teams that they managed more scores in that downpour (24) than they hit in the balmy conditions (21) in the first half.
After two dire performance against Tipperary and Limerick, Clare finally delivered the level expected and demanded from their huge following. They led from the first whistle but anytime Cork looked like reeling them in, Clare drove Cork back with a volley of scores.
In the five minutes after half-time, Cork had six unanswered shots at the target, scoring four to reduce the deficit to two, but Clare hit back with five of the next six points. When Patrick Horgan’s goal got Cork to within one point with less than five minutes of normal time remaining, Clare once again responded with five of the next six points to emphatically close out the match.
Cork had more shots at the target (40-35) but Clare were far more economical and efficient, having a 71% conversion rate to Cork’s 50%. The atrocious conditions were a factor in much of that Cork profligacy but it wasn’t all down to the weather either because Cork’s conversion rate was just 45% in the first half.
Horgan underlined his brilliance with 2-1 from nine plays but he missed four frees (three in the first half) while he also dropped two short and was hooked on another attempt, all in that first half. In contrast, the outstanding Peter Duggan was flawless from placed balls throughout but he also hit four points from play and had a huge assist for Tony Kelly’s goal.
The final whistle was anticlimactic because both teams – and the crowd – knew their fate but the Clare following still gave their players a rapturous response for the honour and bravery of their display.
Even when Cork got on top of the Clare puck-out in the second half, winning 11 of their restarts, and with Cork restricting the damage John Conlon, Shane O’Donnell and Kelly had wreaked in the first half, Clare still found a way to keep the scoreboard moving.
Clare clearly set out with the intent to go for it from the first ball. They loaded the full-forward line with all their big shooters – Kelly, Conlon and O’Donnell – and got as much ball in as early as possible. O’Donnell had the ball in the net after 22 seconds and when Clare got a free outside the 20-metre line in the 8th minute, Duggan went for goal, which was saved on the line, before O’Donnell drove the rebound narrowly wide.
Early on, Conlon struggled to get free from the clutches of Eoin Cadogan but his influence grew as the game progressed; Conlon ended the half with three assists from being fouled for three frees, while he also scored one point.
With Eoin Cadogan on a yellow card, introducing Damien Cahalane was a smart move. He physically matched up well with Conlon and, while the conditions were a factor, Conlon was restricted to just one play after the break. Bringing in Steven McDonnell was also a better match-up on Kelly.
O’Donnell could have had a goal early in the second half but for a brilliant save by Anthony Nash but Niall O’Leary did well considering the amount of ball played into O’Donnell’s area, and O’Donnell’s only other contribution after the break was being fouled for a converted free.
In the first half, Clare did well on their own puckout, with Cork winning just three of Donal Tuohy’s restarts in that period, while Clare turned that possession into 1-3.
Cork meanwhile were struggling to win enough possession off their own puck-outs, with Clare winning seven of Nash’s restarts. What’s more, Clare turned over four of Cork’s short puck-outs on that second ball. That was one of the primary reasons that Cork’s front eight were restricted to just 33 plays in that first half.
Cork set the tone immediately after the break by winning Clare’s first four puck-outs and, with Darragh Fitzgibbon beginning to assert himself, the scores began to flow. Then the sky rumbled, the rain came down in torrents, and Clare dug in for a battle.
Cork matched them to a point; their front eight (including the subs) made 43 plays after the break. Fitzgibbon, Bill Cooper and Luke Meade’s work-rate increased significantly while Seamus Harnedy also dug in. Harnedy wasn’t as influential as he has been in recent years against Clare but he still tried to make things happen when the ball wasn’t running for him; from nine plays in total, Harnedy was fouled for three frees, had an assist, plus a key part in Horgan’s second goal, as well as scoring one point.
Alan Cadogan was Cork’s best forward, scoring four points and being fouled for a converted free from just seven plays. Cork will be relieved that they got through but the manner of the defeat will also have been instructive in what Cork need to do next.
Even allowing for the conditions, they needed to use their possession better in the second half, especially down the left flank. They also needed to be defensively stronger when Cork got the deficit back to within striking distance, and Clare still floored them with the next raft of balls into their attack. The Cork defence also needs to be more aware of tracking runners.
Most importantly of all, Cork need to work harder. When Cork bring the work-rate and savagery that they brought to the Limerick match, they can beat anybody.
But when they don’t, they can be beaten by anybody left in this championship.