HEADING into the last quarter in Ennis on Sunday, Cork’s attacking play had largely been so positive for the first three quarters that the match was always going to come down to Cork continuing to trust their attacking process.
When Clare levelled the game with time effectively up, Cork secured their own kickout and had the patience and nerve to engineer the opening for John O’Rourke to nail.
In the circumstances of such a pressurised game, with so much at stake, a conversion rate of 73% was at the top of the list of a positive display.
Failing to progress to the league semi-finals tempered the result, especially when the win still catapulted Cork into a relegation semi-final, but Cork were always likely to find themselves in this position; if they were to beat Clare in Ennis, it was always going to be a struggle to win by a a big enough margin to enable Cork to leapfrog Clare on scoring difference; Cork also knew that Kildare were odd-on to win against Laois.
Cork’s promotion prospects were effectively sundered in their opening round defeat to Kildare, particularly when that losing margin – four points – was the points difference which Cork ultimately lost out by.
It seems strange when a win, especially an away win, and particularly against a team which Cork had failed to beat in their previous three league games, comes with a caveat but Cork will still be happy with many aspects of their performance.
As well as their accuracy, Cork had an attack efficiency of 79%, with 30 shots from 38 attacks.
They won 17 of their own 21 kickouts.
Clare really put a hard press on Micheál Martin’s kickout in the last quarter but Cork retained their last five restarts, and mined the winning score from that source.
Cork did cough up a score on a late turnover, but their ball retention was excellent in the second-half, with Cork turning the ball over just four times in that period, and just once in the third quarter.
That was all the more impressive again considering that turnovers were a key area of concern for Cork in the first half.
The one sector where Cork really struggled though, was in shutting down the Clare kickout; Clare mined 1-9 off their own restarts.
weren’t as productive in that area, but they were vastly more efficient off their own restarts in the second half when sourcing five points off their own kickout in that period.
Cork’s performance levels vastly improved in the second quarter when they completely wrestled back control of the match, but it was always going to be difficult to maintain that tempo and energy against a defiant Clare side.
Cork’s shooting in the first half was some of the most accurate they have produced in years, with 12 scores from 14 shots, with the two misses coming back off the post from Luke Connolly placed balls.
Clare took over the second half of the first quarter, most of which stemmed from the damage they were inflicting on their own kickout.
Trailing by three points, the messages were obvious for Cork at the first water-break.
They weren’t managing the game well in the middle third, especially when in possession, primarily because too many of Cork’s players were being attracted to the ball, as opposed to running at angles and into space off the ball.
Cork weren’t playing with enough width and depth either and they were being hammered on the counter-attack, particularly when there were too many gaps between their half-back and full-back line.
Not enough Cork players were getting back into their defensive shape quickly enough when Cork lost the ball and three of Clare’s scores in that first quarter had come off Cork turnovers.
Cork though, ramped up the pace from the outset of the second quarter.
Clare had only turned over the ball twice in the first quarter, both of which had come off long kicks, but Cork forced Clare into seven turnovers in the second quarter, three of which led to Cork scores.
Six unanswered points in seven minutes gave Cork a huge platform but Clare expectedly dug in and never let Cork out of sight.
Cork were always going to need a goal to try and profit from scoring difference, but Cork had enough to do to just try and win the game.
Similar to the Laois match, Cork again had some key individual performances in another must-win-game.
Ruari Deane made more plays than anyone else (32) and had three big assists. Ian Maguire made 24 plays.
Luke Connolly kicked an exquisite point from play while he had three assists and was fouled for a converted free.
Just as importantly, Connolly landed two monstrous placed balls when Cork desperately needed them in the second half.
After Connolly went off, Cathail O’Mahoney kicked a brilliant ’45 while O’Mahony was devastatingly efficient from open play, with four points from just eight possessions.
John O’Rourke also had an excellent match with four points. Before he was sent off, Brian Hurley scored two points from just four possessions.
Cork will still know they have plenty to do; they conceded too many scoreable frees; they never had a shot for a goal.
After the game, the Cork squad gathered in a huddle near the corner-flag.
Cork already knew their fate before the game was even over, but their focus had already turned to Westmeath and avoiding relegation.
Because the last thing Cork need now is another setback at this stage of the summer.