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JOHN HAYES: Rebels kept their cool in Ennis but huge improvement needed for Donegal tie 

May 23rd, 2024 6:30 PM

By Southern Star Team

JOHN HAYES: Rebels kept their cool in Ennis but huge improvement needed for Donegal tie  Image
Cork's Brian O’Driscoll holds off the challenge of Emmet McMahon of Clare during last weekend's Sam Maguire clash in Ennis. (Photo: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo)

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THE arm wrestle Cork found themselves involved in with Clare was completely avoidable. While the Rebels began their 2024 Sam Maguire campaign with a narrow two-point victory (1-13 to 1-11) in Ennis on Saturday evening, they needed a four-point push from substitute forwards Mark Cronin and Stephen Sherlock to avert what could have been a disastrous result.

The positives for Cork were primarily the opening 20 minutes when they looked far superior to their hosts, and the ability to keep their cool and win the game for a second time when Clare drew level late in the second half. 

Let’s go back to the opening stages on a fine early summer evening at a bustling Cusack Park. The official attendance was announced at 3,262 but it felt like more packed into the tight stands at the lively old venue. I can only imagine the atmosphere for the Munster hurling epic the following day was something special. 

As an aside, I did consider staying the night and attending the hurling as my other half is a Waterford woman, however the lack of available accommodation in Ennis and the cost of recent holidays, Bruce Springsteen and a few upcoming weddings changed our minds. I’m a little sorry now that I only got to see the Davy Fitzgerald fireworks on the TV rather than first hand. I wonder how many Cork people did go to Ennis and then on to Thurles last weekend – could we do more to make it more attractive for people to do so by laying on supporters’ buses, reduced price ticket deals for attending both games and generally more promotion of the chance to make an exciting two days following the Cork teams? 

These weekends should be promotional gold for both codes in Cork GAA and it feels like we aren’t maximising the opportunity for football in particular. However, we can’t always blame the logistics, and the culture of not following the Cork football team, unless it’s a big day out in Killarney or Croke Park, has often been flagged. Do Cork football supporters really deserve the success we seem to expect when compared to how the followers of less successful counties travel with their team? Watch the number of Donegal supporters who will travel down to Páirc Uí Rinn Saturday week for the next round game, and then ask yourself how many would realistically travel north if the fixture was reversed. 


Back to the game and the early Cork dominance that made me hopeful of a comfortable evening for the supporters who did travel. In the car on the way up to Ennis with my brother, Seamus, I suggested that we would learn a lot more about this new Clare team than during the free-hit, no-expectations Munster final they played against a half-interested Kerry. In my head, a tuned-in Cork team would show whether or not the mass exodus from the Clare football squad in the last couple of seasons had weakened them significantly, or if the new generation of Clare footballers could continue where their predecessors had left off and be a real threat to Cork and our championship hopes. 

Twenty minutes in and I was thinking the truth was far closer to the former than the latter, as Cork looked in complete control. Cork’s defence was compact and, after a couple of early openings which saw Clare miss presentable opportunities, would limit Clare to four points from frees for the first half. John Cleary openly questioned the validity of at least some of those frees after the game, and referee Jason Lonergan did seem a little keen to punish what looked like good, aggressive tackles from both sides at times. A Clare man beside us even questioned what more Daniel O’Mahony could have done when contesting a high ball with his opponent, Aaron Griffin. Notably, though, Clare had two free-takers sharing responsibility in Emmet McMahon and Cathal Downes. McMahon would kick from the hands for the majority of the frees and Downes from the ground from longer range, the former converting five and Downes converting a long-range free and a 45. Unfortunately, from a Cork perspective, Brian Hurley was to have a forgettable day from dead balls. 

The inability of the Cork forwards to follow through on a promising opening 20/25 minutes when Hurley got two points from play, with Conor Corbett and Chris Óg Jones also getting on the scoreboard, was the primary reason for Cork’s inability to put the game to bed. Cork’s best openings generally came from turnovers of Clare possession and fast breaks against a disorganised defensive set-up. Sean Powter finished cleverly from one such break, and one of Hurley’s points could have been a goal chance had he not fumbled the initial possession when Cork had a 3 v 2 on the Clare goal. 

The above-mentioned quartet combined for 1-4 in the first half, before each one would be called ashore in the second half. In fact, the biggest surprise was that Hurley lasted until the 66th minute given his difficulties with the frees, and how often he has been replaced earlier in games when playing better than last Saturday. It’s possible that the management were trying not to further dent his confidence after the missed frees, in the hope that he can produce another performance akin to the Kerry game against Donegal on Saturday week. 

The first sign of Cork’s descent to mediocrity after the bright start came when Hurley missed a free from straight in front of the posts ten minutes before half time. Both myself and my brother were so sure he would score that we were looking at the match programme and only looked up to see the umpire waving the ball wide to our disbelief. It’s a free that Hurley would kick 99 times out of 100, and the miss seemed to unsettle both him and the team. In the second half, Hurley would see two scorable frees caught at his crossbar by Stephen Ryan in the Clare goal. 

Another three points were left behind when Cork failed to capitalise on another turnover around the Clare 45-yard line. On this occasion, Chris Óg gained possession with Ian Maguire straight through on goal ahead of him and with Brian O’Driscoll also in support with only one covering Clare defender. Jones decided not to use Maguire and instead carried the ball himself, coming under pressure from Clare full back Cillian Brennan but managing to release a pass to the on-rushing O’Driscoll who palmed against the crossbar from point blank range. Blame could be attributed to both players for the failure to convert the chance, however the most relevant point is the general Cork habit of not converting golden chances rearing its ugly head yet again. While it didn’t cost us points last Saturday, it absolutely will against the better teams in the coming games. 

To their credit, Clare capitalised on the Cork profligacy and a goal from Aaron Griffin soon after the O’Driscoll miss rightly set the cat amongst the pigeons. The goal came with 43 minutes and the rest of the game was a ding-dong battle that got the vocal crowd very involved. We got a far more interesting and entertaining second half than Cork should ever have allowed. Happily, for Cork, the changes that supporters had been calling for did make an impact when they did eventually arrive, as Cronin, Sherlock and Ruairi Deane helped to repel the Clare fightback. 

Best on the day for Cork were Tommy Walsh, Rory Maguire, Colm O’Callaghan, Paul Walsh and the reinforcements from the bench. Ian Maguire and Brian O’Driscoll worked hard and had their moments also. Next up is a mouthwatering game at home to Donegal and a chance to test ourselves against Jim McGuiness and one of the form teams in the country. Vast improvement will be needed to even be competitive with a team that brushed Cork aside on the other side of the country in the opening round of the national league. We will look ahead to that one next week.

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