By Mark Jones
Clare 0-21, Cork 0-13
If there were any doubts over which county stands at the pinnacle of Irish hurling right now, those doubts were swept aside last Sunday in Thurles as Clare stormed into the Munster final with a stunning victory over Cork.
This was a contest between the kings and the most highly regarded pretenders. As reigning League champions who had dismissed Limerick in the first round, Cork were entitled to see themselves as potential All Ireland winners and for the guts of an hour, they put it up to Clare.
But with the match in the balance, it was Clare who typically produced the decisive burst of scoring. Anthony Daly started the ball rolling with a marvelous 100-yard free and that point opened the floodgates as Jamesie O’Connor, Niall Gilligan, Alan Markham, Eamonn Taaffe and then O’Connor again all hit the target in quick succession with the Cork defense reeling.
Even if Clare were far from perfect on the day, they were clearly pumped up for the occasion. They struggled to get a grip on proceedings during the first half and yet they trailed by only a point, 0-9 to 0-8, at the interval. From then on, it was a case of gradual dominance.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
Brian Lohan was keeping Alan Browne on the tightest of leashes, and despite some poor finished by the forwards in those early stages, midfielders Ollie Baker and Colin Lynch were creating more than enough chances to suggest the onslaught that was to come later.
Clare might be criticized for not putting Cork away earlier, but when they turned the screw, it was men against boys. In the end, every forward scored from play, including substitute Ger O’Loughlin. After an edgy start, the full forward line of Gilligan, Taaffe and Markham functioned well.
Markham’s appearance, together with that of Brian Quinn, was one of the talking points. Originally, neither had been included in the starting lineup, with Michael O’Halloran and Conor Clancy selected to play up front, but manager Ger Loughnane was determined to break with tradition and do things his way.
“We told the players whatever team appears in the papers, pay no heed to it,” Loughnane said. “We would tell them on Sunday morning, that was it.” When you have new or young players coming in, then you must protect them.”
Loughnane’s mind games were all very well, but his decision was tough on O’Halloran and Clancy who had to take their places among the subs.
For Cork’s manager, Jimmy Barry-Murphy, a once promising season ended with a whimper. His side were good before the break, although Brian Corcoran and Sean Og O hAilpin weren’t able to make their usual impact in the half-back line, but once Clare found top gear, the contest turned into a procession.
“We got several opportunities and we didn’t take them,” a rueful Barry-Murphy said. “We learned a hard lesson. I thought we had them in trouble in the first 20 minutes, but we didn’t get any return from the possession the full forward line.”
Clare are now set to defend their Munster title against Waterford next month and the crafty Loughnane was already talking up the opposition. “We always reckoned Waterford would be a bigger danger to us than Cork,” he said. Whatever about all the banter, Clare look to be well on their way.
Meanwhile, the two Ulster hurling semifinals were decided at Casement Park, with Derry and Antrim booking their places in next month’s showdown. Derry got the better of Down by 2-17 to 0-18 with Oliver Collins accounting for an impressive 12 points of the winners’ total and a rejuvenated Antrim improved markedly on the first drawn encounter to pulverize London by 6-28 to 1-7 in a replay.
Kildare 0-12, Dublin 1-8
At last, Kildare laid their Dublin bogey by advancing to the Leinster football semifinal with a thrilling one-point victory at Croke Park. The butt of so many jokes for their failure to ever get the better of Dublin, this win following a drawn first encounter brought seasons of Kildare frustration to an end.
The critical period arrived midway through the second half when Dublin appeared to have taken total control with four points in a row. Two from Declan Darcy, and a couple more by Jim Gavin and Paul Curran, made it 0-7 to 0-6 in the Dubs’ favor and Kildare looked to be down and out.
But what a fightback. Kildare proved to be stubborn, composed and skillful as they regained the initiative in a tension-packed finale. “Other Kildare teams would probably have dropped their heads at that stage,” said Niall Buckley, who was inspirational.
Buckley thumped over two frees from difficult angles to put his team back on track and then two more scores from Padraig Graven left Dublin chasing shadows. When Glen Ryan surged through the defense to make the advantage four points, the Kildare supporters were beginning to celebrate and Darcy’s last minute goal was too late to deprive the Lilywhites of a semifinal tie against Laois.
To compound Dublin’s misery, the finished the game with only 13 men. First, Paul Curran was forced to leave the pitch with all three subs already in the action and then captain Dessie Farrell was sent off for a second bookable offense. Kildare’s Anthony Rainbow also got his marching orders along with Farrell as referee Michael Curley appeared to have over-react to what were routine fouls. In all, Curley saw fit to book a total of 11 players.
“In fairness to our forwards, they were willing to have a go and admire them for that,” said Kildare’s manager, Mick O’Dwyer. “It was a marvelous achievement. Eventually, we caught the game by the scruff of the neck and we didn’t let go.”
The Kildare defense worked tirelessly. Brian Lacey completely snuffed out the threat of Jason Sherlock to the extent that Sherlock was substituted with 10 minutes left and Sos Dowling policed Farrell superbly. Of Dublin’s eight points, six came from frees and the other two were scored by a defender and midfielder.
For a disconsolate Dublin manager, Tommy Carr, the game simply slipped away. “I don’t think we lost heart at any stage, but maybe a little bit of panic set in we stopped playing to our pattern,” he said. “Certainly, Kildare looked to be the hungrier team at the right stage of the game.”
Donegal 0-15, Cavan 0-13
This Ulster football semifinal in Clones bore witness to two of the GAA’s greatest jinxes. First, the team with 14 men won, and, second, the reigning Ulster champions failed to hold on to their title.
When Donegal center-back Martin Coll was sent off for a high tackle on Larry Reilly, only 10 minutes had elapsed. In theory, Cavan should have been on their merry way to a second provincial decider in succession, but in reality, Donegal toughed it out to make the final for the first time since 1992.
Manager Liam Austin summed up Cavan’s predicament. “It’s all about responsibility on the pitch,” he said. “Players take their foot off the pedal and losing a man motivates the other team. We didn’t take on enough responsibility.”
By contrast, Donegal knuckled down to the job and with the entire defense and the Boyles, Tony and Manus, in superb form, they surged into a 0-8 to 0-5 lead at the changeover.
Even though Ronan Carolan was a constant threat, the rest of the Cavan forwards failed to make any impact. Dramatic late scores by Carolan and Raymond Cunningham cut the deficit to just a point with eight minutes left, but Tony Boyle and sub Brian Roper sealed Donegal’s place in the decider against either Armagh or Derry.