By Mark Jones
Clare 1-16, Waterford 3-10
With a heady combination of Tour de France fever and interest in the soccer World Cup sweeping through Ireland, it just might have been possible for the Munster hurling final to slip down the rankings for once in its illustrious history.
But then there was Clare and Waterford and more than 50,000 spectators at Thurles and yet another classic game stole last weekend’s sporting show.
A draw was probably the fairest outcome at the end of a titanic struggle, with Clare mighty relieved to be clinging on to both Munster and All Ireland titles after they had seen an 8-point lead whittled away and Waterford proud of their fighting comeback.
In fact, even though Waterford only drew level for the first time with a minute remaining, they had a chance of victory with the very last puck. It was an audacious free from fully 100 meters out. Backed by a strong wind, Paul Flynn went for broke, only to see his shot to drop to the right of the Clare goal.
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It was a nerve-tingling finale to a furious contest which Clare almost let slip. With that gusting wind behind them, the favorites were out of the blocks fast with an Alan Markham goal on two minutes. Attacks then rained down on the Waterford defense as Jamesie O’Connor began to pick off his scores.
Even though Clare were clearly on top, Waterford had settled well with Flynn making several dangerous forays. A total of seven first-half wides didn’t help their cause, but when Anthony Kirwan followed up a rasping Flynn shot for a goal six minutes before the interval, the underdogs were in contention.
Worryingly for Clare, a number of key performers including Brian Lohan, Anthony Daly and Colin Lynch, were struggling and Waterford’s Tony Browne was beginning to make his presence felt at midfield. Equally, Waterford were able to match Clare in the physical stakes.
“Just when a new team was needed in Munster, along came Waterford,” mused Clare’s manager, Ger Loughnane. “I see a lot of ourselves in them. They were just as hungry, just as skillful and just as well coached.”
For all Waterford’s admirable defiance and Clare’s below-par display, the champions seemed to have the match wrapped up with 10 minutes left. Hurling with the wind, a tremendous Waterford surge had reduced the gap to a single point, 1-12 to 2-8.
Kirwan had fired home his second goal with a stunning shot right on the restart and then Waterford cut through Clare’s resistance with six unanswered points. But just when the game was slipping away, Clare’s spirit showed once more as they suddenly burst into life with points from O’Connor, Daly and Conor Clancy.
Now the margin was four and surely Waterford were finished. “Sometimes when you’re a team like Waterford desperately trying to make the breakthrough,” said manager Gerald McCarthy, “you have to be twice better than the opposition to beat them.”
Waterford weren’t twice as good, but they refused to accept defeat as the outstanding Browne calmly struck two points in quick succession. Even when P.J. O’Connell replied for Clare, all was not lost and Flynn stepped up to crash a 20-meter free into the top corner of the net for the equalizing score.
He then had that long-range chance for glory after O’Connell had been sent off for a dangerous challenge on Browne, but no one was complaining about a draw. Especially not the GAA, who will have another big Thurles payday on Sunday.
Breathless, passionate, skillful stuff. Even when sporting choices are so rich and varied, there is nothing quite like a Munster hurling final.
Meanwhile, Cork were convincing winners of the Minor title by 3-13 to 0-8 when they overran Clare with three second-half goals.
After last season’s farcical 37-point defeat, Roscommon could have been excused for not turning up at Hyde Park for this summer’s Connacht hurling final, but to their credit, the no-hopers made a mockery of the formbook with a hugely encouraging display.
Admittedly, there was never any real doubt as to the eventual winners, but it was Galway who were left to answer most of the questions at the end of the game. Early in the second half, Roscommon were only trailing by a point as the holders struggled to find any rhythm and if it hadn’t been for the remarkable scoring exploits of Darragh Coen – a total of 1-13, including 10 frees – Galway might have been facing disaster.
In addition, veteran midfielder Michael Coleman had to retire with a back injury in the first half and that was impetus for Roscommon’s Mickey Cunniffe and Colm Kelly to completely dominate the sector.
Kelly, Brendan Boyle and Pat Regan had goals for the losers, who under new manager Michael Conneely are clearly now on the right road.
An injury-time goal by Brendan O’Sullivan earned Kerry a draw in the National Hurling League Div. II final at Nenagh last weekend. Westmeath actually led by six points in the last minute, when a John Dooley goal appeared to be merely a consolation score for Kerry. However, O’Sullivan’s dramatic effort changed everything.