WHEN this Munster final is long forgotten, Damien Cahalane’s awe-inspiring run will live on.
Make no mistake, as Cahalane snapped up that break at the edge of the Cork square and took off faster than Sonia O’Sullivan or Rob Heffernan at the Olympics, a Clare comeback was very much on.
The gap was down to a couple of points and a few sloppy Cork wides had ceded the momentum to Clare.
Cahalane – the same way former full-back Diarmuid O’Sullivan used to – seized his opportunity to make a Rebel-rousing play at a vital time. Within 20 seconds the sliotar was over the bar from the bas of Patrick Horgan’s hurley, via Luke O’Farrell assist, and the red hordes erupted in the stands and the terraces.
Everyone in Thurles realised at that stage that Cork weren’t going to be beaten. Alan Cadogan and a Horgan free sealed the deal as the Banner were left hunting a goal. Horgan, who only needed five points to do it, hit 13 to break Christy Ring’s record as the highest scoring Rebel of all time.
The pitch invasion afterwards and the outpouring of emotion at the final whistle showed just how much this summer so far means to the People’s Republic.
Cork were basically a laughing stock in recent years, especially a player like Cahalane, who was mocked for being a converted hurler, with the rest of country offering condescending sympathy. Who’s laughing now? Probably Cahalane, all the way onto the Cork team bus yesterday with his Cavs NBA hat on and another Munster medal secured.
Kieran Kingston and his management team deserve all the credit they’re getting for turning it around, but also the players, from Anthony Nash up to Conor Lehane and Patrick Horgan, for turning talent into consistency.
The incredible work going underage – even when they weren’t winning – by clubs, Kevin O’Callaghan and his GDAs, and in Cork development squads, has paid off with U17 and minor Munster crowns. The senior grade is box office though and getting over the line yesterday made it three from three in the province with Thursday’s U21 semi-final away to Waterford next up.
The Rebels could pull off a provincial clean sweep yet, which is why Cahalane’s burst was an incredible moment on what was one of the great days in Cork hurling. That’s not to confuse the occasion with the match. That was patchy enough, basically ruined by Clare’s refusal to engage their opponents in a straight-up battle.
Not that Clare’s approach worked. Anthony Nash’s puck-out options were limited but he still pinged a few gems to Luke Meade and Bill Cooper. The short balls to Cahalane and Colm Spillane were turned into dangerous deliveries out wide to Cadogan and Horgan. Even with bodies funnelling back the Banner full-back line was in the horrors while the Cork defence smothered Podge Collins, Shane O’Donnell and Conor McGrath for the most part.
Mark Coleman is so cool and calm he could hurl with sunglasses instead of a helmet. Clare kept the sliotar away from him early but like Brian Corcoran in his pomp, he can only be avoided for so long. His sideline and point from play in the last 10 minutes show why he’s a hero to every kid with a hurley on Leeside.
Cork weren’t as dominant in the air as they had been, but Colm Spillane’s snatched a few critical balls away from the grasp of the dynamic McGrath. Bill Cooper is this team’s N’Golo Kante, forcing turnovers in the middle and popping possession off. While Tony Kelly and Colm Galvin were decent, Cooper and the other ice-cool youngster Darragh Fitzgibbon made their mark at centre-field as well.
Stephen McDonnell, Mark Ellis and Chris Joyce used their physicality in the dramatic last quarter when Clare finally started hurling off the cuff, while Horgan and Cadogan showed their class, picking off those killer points to send the Leesiders into hurling heaven.
Horgan has often frustrated Cork supporters by not marrying the animal work-rate demanded of the modern forward with his golden wrists. Not anymore. On a day when Conor Lehane has harried relentlessly – even if scored a point and was fouled for three frees – Horgan spearheaded the forwards.
Cadogan was a lightning rod. He’d sparked for periods up to now but here he shone for the full 70 minutes. It’s one thing to get MVP in a qualifier against Dublin, quite another to do it in a Munster final.
His points were tasty, but his goal was tucked away after a Ben O’Connor-style sliotar hop on the ground. That was one of those flashes of inspiration that’ll be cherished.
As will a first Munster title in three years. It felt like so much longer but that’s why Cork are a hurling powerhouse. Their time has come again, especially given the influx of newcomers and the potential in the minors.
Bring on the return to the big house on Jones Road on August 13.