It’s one of the most highly anticipated clashes of the 2018 season so far as Clare and Cork do battle for the second year in a row in the Munster final. We look at some of the key areas of what’s sure to be a blistering encounter.
Which team will continue to defy expectation?
These two teams met in last year’s Munster final where Cork emerged victorious. But before this year’s championship got underway, the names being thrown around were Tipperary, Limerick and Waterford with the 2017 finalists barely getting a mention.
The format in this year’s championship meant that even going into the fourth round, every team had a chance of making the Munster final or the qualifiers. Despite having not lost a game, Cork were not guaranteed a final spot. Indeed, when Clare showed their hand against Tipperary, knocking out the 2016 champions, many expected that their clash with Limerick the following week would simply be a dress rehearsal for the Munster final given that Waterford were leading Cork for a large portion of their game.
But Clare and Cork are two teams that have continued to surprise and impress this season and both teams will be determined to prove their worth. Neither team have had much mention when it comes to the All Ireland series and although both will progress to that competition, the winner of today’s clash will ensure that they are serious All Ireland contenders.
Is this Munster hurling back to its best?
When this fixture was set in stone, there was an immediate flurry of interest in tickets with only a limited number available through general sale. It has been years since Munster GAA have experienced this level of interest in the Munster Final with tickets like gold dust, sold out well in advance. Crowds have been significantly lower in 2018 but the standard of hurling has left every hurling fan wishing they had a front row seat to the climax of the tournament.
The absence of Tipperary means that Semple Stadium is the venue, a ground both teams have flourished in of late, a venue synonymous with big match days. With the unprecedented sunshine and heat, crowds will flock in early and build up the atmosphere.
This might not be the defining rivalry of the Munster championship when you think of Clare v Limerick or Cork and Tipp, but expect these two teams to go at it with the same hatred, passion and intensity of any of the great clashes from the last century.
Who will be the key players?
Both teams have found themselves in sticky situations over this championship where the fate of their season has been on a knife-edge. On those occasions, certain players have brought them back from the brink and for Cork that man, as so often before, is Patrick Horgan.
This is such an exciting, youth-infused side with the likes of Darragh Fitzgibbon and Shane Kingston producing moments of brilliance while Seamus Harnedy looks back to his best. But Horgan is one of the best forwards in the country. He has an innate ability to slow the play down and turn the momentum in Cork’s favour. He is an exceptional free taker and not only does he score, but he wins the dirty ball, setting an example for his young teammates.
There has been only one name on the lips of the Clare faithful and that is John Conlon. There has been an exodus of players through retirement and travelling in Clare in recent years but the fact that they probably have their strongest team in the last three years is a testament to the talent in the county. Peter Duggan, Shane O’Donnell, Tony Kelly, the list of players that can turn a match are endless. But Conlon has been a revelation this year. His physicality has made him almost unmarkable while the 29-year-old looks so at ease with ball in hand. Whether he plays in the half-forward line or operates closer to goal, the Cork defence will be expecting a huge challenge from him today.
Does the result in their round-robin clash hold any clues to the outcome?
In short, no. Cork were winners in the first round of the newly-installed round robin series on a scoreline of 2-23 to 1-21 but John Meyler will not see that as an advantage. The game was level in the 71st minute with Cork pushing on in the additional 11 minutes injury time. The Rebels were slightly better on the day in Pairc Ui Chaoimh but both teams are very much on an equal footing today.
That was Clare’s only loss of the championship while Cork remain unbeaten meaning both sides are heading into the game in serious form. There are still concerns over the Cork defence which the Clare management will be hoping to exploit. They will be relieved that David Reidy’s suspension ban was rightly overturned, leaving him free to play in a hugely physical half-forward line that will be looking to setup goal opportunities for O’Donnell and co.
There is a lot of pressure on Cork today. They are reigning Munster champions who will be looking to atone for the face that they failed to make the All Ireland final in 2017. Of course many agreed that it was just one step too far for this young side but the Cork camp will be frustrated with how they performed. Their goal this year can’t be anything short of an All Ireland final spot if they are to continue their trend of progression and the simplest path to the final: a victory today in Thurles.s
Can Clare claim their first Munster final victory in 20 years?
It’s hard to believe but the last time Clare won a Munster Senior Hurling Championship final was in 1998 when Anthony Daly was captain. Clare have often been criticised and dismissed having not won a trophy since their All Ireland glory in 2013. While many would have expected Clare with such a young panel to push on and compete at the highest level every year, that failed to materialise instead getting caught out during the qualifiers.
There was huge hype surrounding the Cork camp this time last year and Clare seemed to buy into that in the Munster final. They lacked that ruthlessness and showed Cork too much respect. But this is a Clare outfit with a different mentality. No one gave them much of a chance prior to the Limerick game, despite their wins over Waterford and Tipperary but they showed real intent and now that the Clare fans are 100% behind this team, they are playing with serious confidence.
This is a team that needs a trophy. The excuses of youth, inexperience and a squad in transition won’t cut it this year. They are travelling to Thurles to win.