THERE was no shortage of memorable moments from Cork's U20 triumph over Clare.
Captain Micheál Mullins grabbed a goal for the ages, Ben Cunningham and Diarmuid Healy nailed points after soaring high to pull down puck-outs, William Buckley split the posts after a devastating sidestep, and Cunningham set up Tadhg O'Connell's score coming down the stretch after a stunning pick-up on the sideline with three Banner men hanging off him.
Yet the most satisfying aspect was the guts they showed in the last quarter.
The Rebels were strong favourites on Monday night but when Clare took a 1-19 to 1-15 lead with 13 minutes of normal time remaining, they looked in real trouble. Cork's pace created a host of goal chances but only converting one, the solo effort from Mullins, was deflating. The crowd could sense it, the Leeside faithful in the Gaelic Grounds muted.
Cork held their nerve. They started winning or breaking the sliotar in the middle third. They worked like dogs and tackled with controlled aggression.
The 'Rebels, Rebels, Rebels...' chants started booming from the covered stand.
Subs Jack Leahy and Adam O'Sullivan nabbed points and Timmy Wilk made his presence felt on dirty ball. Mark Howell and James Dwyer made some critical defensive interceptions with Shane Kingston and Ben O'Connor using their power tellingly while corner-back Darragh O'Sullivan, punished for the Clare goal but otherwise excellent, grabbed the sliotar deep into added time as Clare sought an equaliser.
The final possession was fed to Leahy but instead of bating it into no-man's-land, he arrowed the ball for Ross O'Sullivan to run onto and earn the free that sealed the deal.
Cork outscored Clare 0-8 to 0-2 when the game was on the line.
Even without Eoin Downey, unable to tog out because of the seniors' trip to Cusack Park at the weekend under a daft rule, this is an extremely talented squad, the core of the team drawn from the 2021 minor All-Ireland winners.
He was a serial winner as a player with Newtownshandrum and Cork and, like the Charleville and Midleton sides he coached in recent years, these U20s are super-fit, honest, skillful and dogged to the last whistle.
Cunningham is the top-scorer with a haul of 2-44 and was TG4 Laoch na hImeartha in the last two gritty wins over Limerick and Clare. He's clearly a leader and earned plaudits on Monday across social media when he lashed out at the GAA rule which prevented Downey and Clare's Adam Hogan from featuring in the Munster final.
Very strong stuff from Ben Cunningham speaking to @SportTG4. Man of the match in U20 Munster Final. Says it is “an absolute disgrace” Eoin Downey and Adam Hogan couldn’t play. pic.twitter.com/T0mN07o1nx— Maurice Brosnan (@m_brosnan) May 15, 2023
The Barrs sharpshooter has the paw, two-sided striking and ability to break tackles to make the step up like Eoin Downey. The other most consistent performers this season have been Shane Kingston, Darragh O'Sullivan, Tadhg O'Connell, Diarmuid Healy and William Buckley. But there's no shortage of young Rebels with senior potential. Given it's U20, patience will be a virtue; Timmy Wilk, Adam O'Sullivan and Ross O'Sullivan for example only turn 18 this year.
O'Connor assembled a strong management group, with Ronan Curran, Anthony Nash, Ger O'Regan and Terence McCarthy by his side, and a wealth of experience and passion for Cork in the rest of the backroom. They've won every game to date in 2023 and now head into the All-Ireland final against Offaly expected to make it three All-Irelands in four seasons for Cork.
Remarkably, it'll be Cork's fifth All-Ireland final appearance in six seasons, having lost to Tipp in 2018 and '19. Cork were also in the 2017 Munster final where they were beaten by Limerick.
The earlier part of the 2010s were extremely bleak for Cork at what was then U21; they made the 2011 and '14 Munster finals but across seven seasons they won just three matches and lost seven.
The foundation has been laid by a succession of strong management teams under O'Connor, Donal O'Mahony, Pat Ryan, Denis Ring and John Meyler.
The current Rebel Óg Coaching approach to account for Cork's huge player base and geographical size, putting the emphasis on development over trophies, helps too. Keep the net as wide as possible for as long as possible.
When small West Cork club Randal Óg published their history it was wittily titledand now they've a Munster-winning U20 in Seán Daly. There's plenty of hurling beyond the Viaduct.
For a proud hurling county like Cork, it's still important to collect silverware and breed a strong mentality beyond minor.
With O'Connor at the helm, they're in safe hands there.
Ben Cunningham 2-44 (0-29 f, 0-3 65);
Diarmuid Healy 1-11;
Colin Walsh 1-8;
William Buckley 0-10;
Tadhg O'Connell 0-9;
Adam O'Sullivan 0-7;
Ross O'Sullivan 0-6;
Timmy Wilk, 0-5;
Jack Leahy 0-3;
Micheál Mullins 1-0;
Eoin O'Leary, David Cremin 0-2 each;
Darragh O’Sullivan, Brian Keating, Mikey Finn, Shane Kingston 0-1 each.
Cork 1-17 Waterford 1-13; Cork 1-28 Tipperary 1-19; Clare 0-22 Cork 1-24; Limerick 1-21 Cork 1-19.
Cork 1-23 Clare 1-21.
Cork v Offaly, Sunday, June 4, Semple Stadium.