John Horgan on hurling: Clare v Limerick can deliver a Munster final classic

Cork will be back in action on June 11 against Kerry or Antrim
John Horgan on hurling: Clare v Limerick can deliver a Munster final classic

Shane O'Donnell of Clare is tackled by Declan Hannon and Sean Finn of Limerick. They meet again this Sunday. Picture: John Sheridan/Sportsfile

THE curtain comes down on the Munster hurling championship in Semple Stadium next Sunday with the two best teams in the province contesting the final.

Over a fairly rigorous group format campaign, Limerick justified their standing as the country’s best team while Clare played some very enterprising hurling in finishing alongside their near neighbours, both on seven points from their four games.

At the outset, the consensus would have been that Limerick and Waterford would contest the final with Cork succeeding in their quest to reach the All-Ireland series back in third place.

Cork succeeded in that quest, resurrecting themselves superbly after a fairly disastrous opening two games which left them rooted to the bottom of the table alongside Tipperary.

The manner with which they reinvented themselves was certainly one of the stories of that stage of the chase for the prize of collecting the ultimate accolade.

They would still be regarded as an outside bet for the All-Ireland and to do so they will need to win four more games.

The first of those games they will be expected to win and maybe with a bit to spare.

Their opponents will be Antrim or Kerry who contest the Joe McDonagh Cup final next weekend with the Ulster team the more fancied of the two.

Kerry already were victorious over their opponents in that competition but on the day Antrim were minus a few key players and were already safely berthed in the final. It might be a different story this time and that’s not dismissing Kerry’s challenge in any shape or form but the favourites tag will be placed around Antrim.

And if it is Antrim, they will have home advantage against Cork and that could prove to be a trickier assignment than many might envisage. 

Cork would be a huge draw in the glens of Antrim and once the welcome mat is removed it would be hell for leather from the Saffron county.

But that’s all for another day and the Kerry boys might well have a few things to say when they line up against the Ulster county.

There is no doubt that Clare have been the most positive story of the group stage of the Munster championship.

Three wins and a draw from their four assignments represented a job very well done and in the process of doing so their hurling sizzled at times.

They certainly added more ammunition for those who put very little store into how things transpire in the national league campaign.

Clare had a very indifferent league campaign, one win and one draw from their five outings, the win coming against Offaly who were clearly out of their depth in the group.

The Banner did draw with Limerick, a result that they subsequently replicated in their championship get-together in Ennis.

But it was clear that Brian Lohan was putting all his eggs into the championship basket, the league was definitely of secondary importance where he was concerned.

They lost by nine points to Cork on the opening night of the campaign in a game which at times resembled more of a challenge encounter than it did a competitive one.

But when it came to the championship, they fired with all guns blazing as Cork found out in Thurles, particularly in the opening half of that encounter.

Tony Kelly shoots from Diarmaid Byrnes of Limerick. Picture: John Sheridan/Sportsfile
Tony Kelly shoots from Diarmaid Byrnes of Limerick. Picture: John Sheridan/Sportsfile

Rory Hayes, John Conlon, Cathal Malone, Peter Duggan and Tony Kelly were the standout players that day and they lost Ian Galvin to a red card. Hayes has been one of outstanding corner-backs in the campaign up to now as has Cork’s Sean O’Donoghue.

Kelly has illustrated that at this point in time he is the country’s best hurler and some of his scores have been of exceptionally high quality.

Lohan has constructed a stronger panel this time and win or lose next Sunday’s Munster final this Clare outfit will not be easy opponents in a quarter-final or semi-final of the All-Ireland.

Where the positives and negatives from the Munster campaign are concerned, there will be plenty of positives for some counties but not too many for others.

Where the latter is concerned, Waterford and Tipperary occupy that category, Waterford flopping completely when the big questions were posed and failing dismally to build on a league campaign that secured them the trophy from that competition.

Thereafter it was downhill, just one win over a Tipperary team that subsequently lost all of their four games.

The manner with which Cork ended their campaign changed everything and in the final analysis, the positives outweighed the earlier negatives.

The realignment of the team, particularly the half-back sector with Ciarán Joyce going into the centre and Mark Coleman to the wing has worked out very satisfactorily.

Giving Alan Connoly his fling in the full-forward line has been a huge advantage as well.

Conor Lehane’s form was a further illustration of how form can be temporary but class is permanent. Seamus Harnedy has stood up to be counted too and, overall, the greater spread of scorers has been hugely beneficial.

The team’s balance is far better than it was at the outset.

Kerry wizard Shane Conway in action for Lixnaw. Picture: Domnick Walsh 
Kerry wizard Shane Conway in action for Lixnaw. Picture: Domnick Walsh 

Of course, when Cork face Antrim or Kerry they will have been inactive for three weeks and if successful in that game they will be out again a week later against the losers of Galway and Kilkenny in the quarter-final.

That would be a very quick turnaround and something that the management would have to manage carefully.

Do you send out your best 15 against Antrim or Kerry or do you utilise the bench to a greater extent, mindful that whether it’s Galway or the Cats a week later that will be a huge challenge?

But it’s far better to have those things to be thinking about or not to have them at all like Waterford and Tipperary.

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