CORK travel to Ennis this weekend to take on the Banner, with the winner guaranteed a place in the Munster final.
It’s a massive game for both counties, but more so for Cork, who would be at a serious risk of being eliminated from the championship if they suffer defeat.
Pat Ryan’s men have got to be up for the challenge in Cusack Park, as their draw with Tipperary last time out leaves them on three points, one behind Clare and one ahead of Limerick.
Clare have now beaten both Limerick and Waterford since their defeat to Tipperary on the opening day and they will be looking to make it three in a row against Cork in Ennis.
Before the season started, almost every hurling fan in the country was emphasising the importance of Cork winning both of their Páirc Uí Chaoimh fixtures.
While there’s no denying that a draw against Tipperary was a good result and that point could certainly make a difference, you can’t help but feel like it could come back to haunt Cork by the end of the round-robin games.
With that in mind, here are the three talking points around this pivotal clash, and what will settle the result for the Rebels.
So far in the Munster Championship, Clare have outscored each team they’ve faced in points — 69 to 58. In contrast though, they’ve conceded seven goals in three, five in the defeat against Tipp.
The difference in goals was precisely what gave Tipperary the all-important win.
Cork are generally sound defensively, with Limerick being the only team who have conceded fewer goals since the round-robin system was reintroduced in 2022.
Last season, Clare conceded as many goals as Cork and Limerick combined, and this year they’ve already conceded that many — seven goals in three games.
Their strength in 2022 was that they scored more points than anyone — 104 scores in four games. In that year’s Munster final, it was the goal from Gearoid Hegarty that made the difference.
This is something that Cork have got to target.
With the likes of Tony Kelly, Shane O’Donnell, Ian Galvin, and if he’s fit to play, Aidan McCarthy Clare will inevitably keep the scoreboard ticking over. I expect Cork will struggle to match Clare’s pace in Ennis, but goals change games, and one or two could be enough to snatch a win, even if Clare raise more white flags.
Between this and last year’s championship, Cork have scored 12 goals in six games, managing two when the sides met in Thurles last year.
Shane Kingston’s pace will be crucial to Cork’s chances on Sunday, especially with Robbie O’Flynn sidelined with injury.
Both teams will be desperate to pick up two points. Clare will certainly come out swinging, and so Cork must be cautious in the first quarter of the game. If they concede too many points, or worse, goals, it could quickly become sour.
Clare come into this one having played Waterford just last week, while Cork will be well-rested after having two weeks to prepare for this game.
The ever-so-slight edge in rest and freshness is something that Pat Ryan will have to use to his advantage, but it’s a double-edged sword.
There’s no denying Waterford gave Clare a relatively easy run out in Semple Stadium last Saturday, but the Banner will still have to be mindful of fatigue, particularly in the last 10 or 15 minutes.
That period of the game is often where Cork come to life. We saw it against Tipperary last time out, and against Wexford and Limerick in the league.
If Cork do come to life at the death, they’ll need a strong start to ensure late goals will make a difference to the result, and not just the scoreline.
The round-robin system has enhanced the quality and entertainment of the Munster Hurling Championship, and this fixture is the perfect example of it.
It all comes down to this, the winner takes all here, though the stakes are much higher for Cork. It’s hard to see a way into the All-Ireland series for the Rebels if they lose this one on Sunday.
Cork will be well rested, and in turn, sharper. But Clare have got momentum after their previous two wins.
Both camps will be looking to that difference to be the decider, but who will come out on top this Sunday?