By Mark Jones
Cork 1-15, Clare 0-14
The young hurlers of Cork bucked the trend of recent years when they landed a first Munster title since 1992 with an impressive victory over hot favorites Clare at Semple Stadium last Sunday.
Only Brian Corcoran remained of the winning team of seven seasons ago, but Cork made light of their inexperience to upset the odds and move sweetly into the All Ireland semi-final. After he had accepted the cup, captain Mark Landers cast an eye over his Clare opponents and asked for: "Three cheers for the former Munster champions."
The sarcasm might’ve been lost on the joyous Cork supporters in a crowd of nearly 55,000, but Landers’s request won’t be forgotten by Clare. Stung by this surprise defeat after their earlier demolition of Tipperary, the Banner county are still alive with the continuation of the so-called backdoor rule.
Clare now go on to a quarterfinal in just over a fortnight and even without Jamesie O’Connor (broken arm) and Ollie Baker, who was stretchered off last weekend with an ankle injury, only a fool would write Ger Loughnane’s men off.
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"When you’re beaten by a better team, you can have no complaints," said a rueful Loughnane, "We looked a bit jaded out there we’ve not got to try and get ourselves ready for the quarter-final when we’ll be without two key players." But when Loughnane mischievously added that his team’s chances of winning the All Ireland had "lessened an awful lot" you had to believe that Clare are not yet finished.
However, this Munster final occasion was all about Cork. They could affort to hit 19 wides and still keep their opponents at bay. Clare never led once in the game and they were very disappointing during the first half ,at the end of which Cork were in front by 1-10 to 0-7.
The winners’ defense had a field day with Diarmuid O’Sullivan overwhelming Ronan O’Hara who had been surprisingly promoted to the Clare starting lineup. Fergal Ryan was brilliant and Wayne Sherlock worked feverishly in the half-back line, while Sean O hAilpin produced an outstanding performance after the break.
Cork could afford to carry the normally inspirational Corcoran and still keep control of the contest. Although Corcoran got the better of David Forde in the early stages, he was in trouble when in direct confrontation with Niall Gilligan.
After their confident opening half which featured a neatly taken Joe Deane goal in the 33rd minute, Cork manager Jimmy Barry-Murphy reminded his players that the first 10 minutes after the interval would probably decided the game. The red jerseys went out in a blaze of confidence only to find that Clare had picked themselves up off the floor.
Suddenly, Clare were in command outscoring Cork by six points to one, but the absence of O’Connor was painfully obvious as several chances were missed by the forwards. In fact, Baker and Colin Lynch contributed three points from midfield during that period and when Forde was off target with a simple free — one which O’Connor would have tucked away blindfolded — two minutes from time, Cork were able to breathe a sigh of relief.
They moved upfield for Deane to convert a free, the same player quickly repeated the dose and then Ben O’Connor burst away to smack over a glorious insurance point. "We stuck with our younger players and they come through," said an elated Barry-Murphy. "We’ve been working very hard to put Cork hurling back on the map and even though we had too many wides, we were the better team on the day."
Galway 1-17, Sligo 0-7
No doubt about it, Galway have had a good hard look at themselves in the mirror. A week after doing as much as they could to throw away their All Ireland football title, the champions ran out in Tuam to set the record straight in what turned out to be a one-sided Connacht semifinal replay.
The widespread belief that Sligo’s chance of pulling off a shock result had come and gone was hammered home as Galway confirmed their superiority with a storming second-half display. It hadn’t looked so good coming to the interval, but from then on it was an exhibition.
It had been level 0-5 apiece at the changeover as Galway finished the half with two points from John Donnellan and another by Sean Og de Paor, but with Eamonn O’Hara in superb form at midfield, Sligo were unlucky not to be in front at that stage.
However, a Galway more reminiscent of last summer then took charge and Sligo were simply swept away by a torrent of scores. John Donnellan, who has spent the last year in the shadow of his more illustrious brother, Michael, emerged to steal the show with seven points, six from play.
Ably assisted by Derek Savage and de Paor, Donnellan drove forward into the Sligo defense to set up numerous chances. Seven minutes from time, de Paor followed up Niall Finnegan’s blocked shot to find the net and Galway refused to relax by adding four more points in the closing stages.
Jarlath Fallon returned to make an impression and there were no repeats of the defensive disasters in the drawn game as goalkeeper Martin McNamara and the full-back line of Tomas Meehan, Gary Fahy and Tomas Mannion, closed the door on the Sligo attack. Galway seem now to be in full stride and the Connacht final against Mayo is a mouth-watering prospect.
Meath 1-13, Offaly 0-9
Meath mightn’t be perfect, but no team seems to make up for imperfection better. Offaly presented a sizeable banana skin in this Leinster football semi-final at Croke Park, but the winners trod confidently into the decider on the first day of August.
Whoever comes through from the Dublin-Laois replay will have taken note of this Meath display. There were wides alright and several mistakes, yet they always looked to have too much in reserve for Offaly. "We’re bitterly disappointed, but they looked faster out there," admitted Offaly manager, Tommy Lyons, who decided to call it a day after his team’s defeat.
"I just can’t give the job enough time, it’s too hard on the system. We did well to beat Kildare, but it can often be hard to get up for two games in a row," added Lyons. His players didn’t let him down, but with neither side able to establish clear dominance, the game was always likely to turn on a half chance.
In the end, Meath capitalized and Offaly didn’t. Nearly a quarter of an hour into the second half, Offaly thought they should’ve had a free, but Graham Geraghty surged upfield and hand-passed for Ollie Murphy to plunder a simple enough goal.
It was fitting reward for the unsung Murphy who finished with a valuable 1-3 to his name. John McDermott also had his moments in midfield, Tommy Dowd made a useful contribution, but it was the full-back line, led brilliantly by Darren Fay, which really stymied Offaly.
The midlanders needed Roy Malone, Peter Brady and Vinny Claffey to be at their best, however, it was Fay and his able lieutenants, Mark O’Reilly and Cormac Murphy who came out on top. So much so, that Offaly’s highly vaunted attack was confined to a total of just two frees.
Asked about recent Meath defeats in Leinster finals, manager Sean Boylan wasn’t giving too much away. "It’s grand to get there, but we’ve got to go on and do the business," he said. "We’ve no preference as to who we play, they’ll be in blue anyway."
Armagh 1-10, Derry 0-12
Armagh haven’t actually won anything yet, but you would’ve thought otherwise at Clones last Sunday as the underdogs booked their place in the Ulster football final. The wild celebrations heralded a first final appearance since 1990 and a first championship win over Derry for 22 years, so there were enough reasons for a party.
The manner of victory certainly added to the sense of occasion. Cathal O’Rourke equalizing with a free in the 70th minute and then a Diarmuid Marsden winner from play in injury time. As if that wasn’t enough, there was even more drama to come in the dying seconds of what was a fiercely contested game.
The ball broke loose to Paul McFlynn just 15 yards away from the Armagh goal and as he steadied himself for the shot a replay looked certain, but the ball drifted narrowly wide to Derry’s dismay.
However, amid the joyous scenes, Armagh’s manager, Brian Canavan, was refusing to get carried away. "I’ve been in Ulster finals before and it doesn’t mean a lot to me to get there," he said. "I’ve been beaten in four or five finals, so getting there means nothing if you don’t win."
Derry only have themselves to blame for this exit. Gary Coleman missed a penalty after just 20 second when Anthony Tohill was taken down and they hit seven wides during the second-half some of which were unforgiveable. Despite good performances from Henry Downey and the unlucky McFlynn, the losers once again relied too much on the talents of Tohill.
In reality, the midfielder was difference between the teams after the interval with some outstanding high catches, but even he was guilty of a couple of vital misses. Armagh took advantage and kept their nerve for a historic victory.