By Mark Jones
Cork 0-19, Offaly 0-16
DUBLIN — The rain may have bucketted down, bringing an end to a summer that really never got started, but hurling once again proved itself to be the "Riverdance" of Irish sport. Both Cork and Offaly skidded and skated over a treacherous Croke Park surface last Sunday to produce a memorable All-Ireland semifinal, at the end of which Cork were celebrating a place in the September decider for the first time in seven years.
For what seemed an age, every Cork salvo would be canceled out by an Offaly score. Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s young charges would pick off a point and immediately the more experienced Offalymen would reply. So it ebbed and flowed for over an hour until suddenly and unexpectedly, Cork broke free to rattle off the last five points of the game.
Before that joyous rush of scoring, you would certainly have bet a few quid on a draw such was the minimal gap between the teams. But whether it was the exuberance of youth or unadulterated skill, Kevin Murray and Ben O’Connor had the confidence to flash the ball over the bar with real brio in those dramatic closing stages.
"Offaly showed what tough All-Ireland champions they are," said a breathless Barry-Murphy afterward. "They died hard out there. But I though we finished stronger and what pleased me most was that every player, including all the subs, gave unbelievable commitment."
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There was no denying it. Cork fought with the sort of hunger that belied their standing as championship newcomers. Offaly probably should have been further ahead than 0-10 to 0-9 at the interval, as for the most part they controlled the first half with the imperious Brian Whelahan and Johnny Dooley making vital contributions.
But they snoozed at the start of the second-half as Mickey O’Connell, Seanie McGrath, O’Connor and sub Alan Browne fired over four points in succession. Typically, Offaly got their act together again as the nip and tuck continued at a furious pace with John Troy, Johnny Pilkington and Billy Dooley all taking points to level the scores one more time.
Then it seemed as if Offaly took a deep breath and made one final effort to kill the contest off. Whelahan struck a free and Johnny Pilkington and Johnny Dooley both hit points to give the midlanders an important advantage.
"When we went two up there, we should have held our lead," said manager Michael Bond. "On reflection, we deserved to win, we were the better team. Most of their scores were from frees, many of them dubious frees, quite frankly."
That implicit criticism of referee Dickie Murphy underpinned Offaly’s hangdog post mortem. Seven of Deane’s 10-point haul were from frees awarded against the losers. Bond certainly wasn’t happy with Murphy’s performance.
"A few bad calls, all right," muttered a disappointed John Troy.
"Dickie Murphy won’t be getting any Christmas cards from us," was Whelahan’s view.
"At least I’m delighted that the team hurled well," added Whelahan whose team may now be on the point of breaking up as the likes of Joe Dooley and Martin Hanamy consider their futures. "In hurling terms, we’ve only been around for the last 20 years, but we’ve given great memories. I hope it’s not going to be 100 years again before we see Offaly in an All-Ireland series."
Referee Murphy may have infuriated Offaly, but as one team was contemplating an uncertain future, another was coming of age. Bolstering Barry-Murphy’s youngsters — as many as six players had made their championship debuts in the earlier Munster championship game against Waterford — was Brian Corcoran, who vied with Whelahan for the Man of the Match award.
The only survivor from Cork’s last All-Ireland final appearance back in 1992, Corcoran marshaled his defense superbly from center back. Behind him, Diarmuid O’Sullivan and John Browne were also tremendously effective in keeping the Offaly attack at bay, while up front, both McGrath and Deane had their moments.
With Offaly looking to improve on their two-point lead with just 7 minutes left, Cork began the game’s decisive move. Kevin Murray clipped over the first point and then a hotly disputed free against Troy for picking the ball off the ground presented Deane with the chance to equalize.
Within seconds, O’Connor hit a majestic score from wide out on the right sideline before Fergal McCormack and Deane once again, finished the job in style. In between, Offaly had come prowling for a goal and Paudie Mulhare saw his ground shot bobble wide of the post. But Cork were through to face either Kilkenny or Clare on the last day of the season.
Tipperary made it through to the All-Ireland minor hurling final with a 3-13 to 1-8 win over Wexford, while in football, the minors of Down took the Ulster title by beating Donegal 2-7 to 0-9 in a replay and Dublin got the better of Wexford by 2-13 to 1-12 in the replayed Leinster decider.
A late goal by Sinead Millea gave Kilkenny a dramatic 2-12 to 1-13 victory in the first of the All-Ireland camogie semifinals at Parnell Park. Tipperary were easy winners over Down in the second semifinal on a scoreline of 6-22 to 1-3.