WHEN Cork defeated Clare in the 2021 league in Cusack Park, Cork were full value for their narrow win but it still came with an asterisk; Clare still went through to the Division 2 semi-finals on scoring difference; Cork headed for the relegation play-offs.
Cork’s big defeat to Kildare in the opening round of that condensed four-team group meant that whatever happened in Ennis that afternoon, both teams more or less knew their fate beforehand.
Defeat for Clare meant that they were meeting Mayo in the semi-finals as opposed to Meath but Clare just shrugged their shoulders at how the dice had rolled – the semi-final match up made no real difference to them as they had always struggled against Meath.
Clare didn’t need to empty themselves whereas the win for Cork was important in the context of getting a result against Clare, especially in Ennis. In Cork’s two previous league outings in Cusack Park, in 2017 and 2019, Cork had lost both matches by an aggregate margin of 17 points.
Sandwiched in between those two games, Clare had gone to Páirc Uí Rinn in 2018 and secured their first league win in Cork for 22 years, a result that effectively ended Cork’s hopes of promotion.
They didn’t win the match, but Clare recovered from a sucker-punch of a goal on the stroke of full-time to land two excellent scores against the breeze and deservedly steal away from the Páirc with a precious point.
When Clare goalkeeper Stephen Ryan and Darren O’Neill got their calls mixed up and an undercooked free from Brian Hurley squirmed over the line, Cork should have been able to see the game out from that position. But they couldn’t.
On the other hand, it was if Clare wouldn’t allow them to.
Although Kerry have ruled Munster now for over a decade, Clare felt short-changed for much of that timespan, primarily because of the draw and how they were drawn against Kerry so often in the championship.
Since Clare last appeared in a Munster final in 2012, Cork have featured in eight of the last ten deciders, all but one of which they lost to Kerry.
They just kept coming up against Kerry.
On the otherhand, the two years that Cork and Kerry were on the same side of the draw, Clare failed to win a game in the province, losing to Tipperary in 2020 and to Limerick (after penalties) last year.
That seriously weakened Clare’s argument around their perceived status as the province’s second-best team, especially when Tipperary went on to win the 2020 Munster title. It was all the more galling again for Clare with Cork having taken out Kerry in the semi-final.
Not having got a crack at Cork in the championship since 2015 has added to Clare’s frustration ever since, especially when they felt they had Cork’s number for most of that period.
Yet it has also strengthened Clare’s resolve to keep getting the better of Cork, especially when Clare have never enjoyed such a level of superiority over Cork throughout the counties' long and storied history.
Sunday’s game is Ennis though, has taken on a whole new level of importance again for Clare considering where they now find themselves in the table after three successive league defeats.
The nature of those last two losses to Kildare and Dublin were all the more harrowing again when Clare were in such a commanding position in the fourth quarter of both matches. The Dublin defeat in particular was a hammer-blow when Clare led by six points with 12 minutes remaining.
It was all the more galling given the huge psychological boost it would have given the Clare squad and management going into their last three games.
With Clare having to go to Derry in Round 6, Sunday’s game is massive in their bid to avoid relegation.
Yet it’s also crucially important for Clare in trying to maintain that edge they’ve had over Cork ahead of their championship meeting in Ennis on April 9.
For Cork though, this represents the ideal opportunity to really see where they are at against a side that they have struggled to cope with over the last six years.
Cork are still desperate for league points but, as well as this being a dry run for Ennis on April 9, it’s also a chance for Cork to lay down a marker ahead of that match. Clare are bound to be low after last weekend but the game couldn’t have come at a better time for them.
Cork are on a high after two big wins against Kildare and Limerick along with a good performance against Dublin.
But going into the backyard of a wounded side that desperately wants to prove that they are better than Cork will provide a whole different test.
Sometimes league matches have a far deeper meaning than just the two points at stake and the wider ramifications of the result, where the tone and texture and outcome of the contest is stitched deeply into the modern fabric and soul of both counties, and their relationship at the current time.
And this is one of those matches.