Clare have future in their hands
Clare have future in their hands
Oh to have Donal Óg Cusack there, in the tunnel, playing the mind games. When Jimmy Barry Murphy eventually decided it was time for the most influential goalkeeper of modern times to depart and let Anthony Nash flourish and grow without the shadow of Cusack, he could never have foreseen this situation.
If he had, he would have kept him.
It was Cusack who went round in the parade before the 1999 Munster hurling final against Clare, bellowing over at the opposition and to his team mates, "We're Cork! We're Cork!"
It's an old line that has always been used since they established themselves in ancient hurling times. Before games, Christy Ring would raise it to the heavens in loud dressing room exclamations, as much to fire up everyone around him as motivate himself.
That sentiment, along with the famous line that legendary trainer Jim 'Tough' Barry coined, "Cork are like mushrooms, they can come overnight", has shielded them from ever developing an inferiority complex.
Think about that '99 Munster final. Clare had Seanie McMahon, Davy Fitzgerald, Jamesie O'Connor, the Lohans and Anthony Daly. They were made men with two All-Ireland titles and brought a drive and fury like never seen before to the game. They were teeming with All-Stars. Yet some upstart goalkeeper from a traditional county that had developed reclusive habits in their stately castle upset them by asserting, simply, "We're Cork!"
Tomorrow's game is full of as many certainties as the increasing influence of sport sciences can guarantee.
The only thing nobody can account for is human behaviour and no matter the hours spent cooking up motivational themes, fitness targets and reframing goals, how somebody reacts in a split second means everything in a game.
Take last weekend in the All-Ireland football semi-final.
Kerry and Dublin are going at it with normal time up. Stephen Cluxton belts a kickout down the field for the midfielders to contest.
Kevin McManamon is left on his own and the ball breaks, Michael Darragh Macauley leaps and hangs in the air to scoop it to him. Within seconds, the ball is in the net.
The game was won and lost in that move, a million tiny things coming together to create a special and decisive moment.
That's why something as abstract as tradition matters in an amateur sport. When teams cannot go out and recruit players then it can mean everything. That's what Cork know heading into tomorrow's All-Ireland final.
Clare should and could be the team of the next decade. John Minogue could be seen as their version of Mickey Harte, bringing through a succession of talented underage county squads and serving a long apprenticeship.
In underage competition they are kings. They are reigning Under-21 champions and 17 of that squad are currently in the senior panel. David McInerney, Brendan Bugler and Tony Kelly are some of the finest hurlers in the game at present and they form the spine of the underage group.
Six days after this final, the Under-21s will pull into Semple Stadium to face Antrim and, without disrespecting Kevin Ryan and what he has achieved with his players, the Clare team will be expected to waltz to another title.
Despite their age, they bring a bigger physicality to proceedings than Cork. It will also suit Fitzgerald's warrior spirit and his hurling outlook to turn the middle third into a war zone, dropping Pat Donnellan back in front of the full-back line to operate as a sweeper.
In the two league games Clare played against Cork, they annihilated them in the puckout count, wiping out the Rebels' possession. By the time both teams reconvened for the Munster semi-final, Cork put eight points between them.
What had changed? Well, Nash had come on leaps and bounds. They also had Pa Cronin as an additional option to pick up possession. In short, JBM had worked out a way that would favour Cork.
In giving away inches and kilos to Clare, Cork were not going to turn the game into a contest of aerial ping-pong. Instead, they have developed a bit of a hybrid of their running game from the middle part of the last decade, married with a crisp striking game.
Their ball-skills are amazing and they need to be. While they retain the ball they make it count. When they are chasing the ball, they get in around it and harry for all their worth, but they don't let rucks develop where they can be bullied.
If there is a scrap to be fought, one or two will get in there.
Lorcan McLoughlin rolling around on the floor with Michael Fennelly, despite the size differential, was a case in point this summer.
There are certain principles that JBM cannot ignore. He has picked Brian Murphy to counteract the sparkling form of Kelly.
But they will also impose themselves in open play and with Nash able to hit anything within 80 metres away over the bar, there is not an area of the field that Clare can afford to employ spoiling tactics.
Cusack recently described the feeling of watching Cork get to an All-Ireland final as hearing about an old flame going off to get married while you still carry a flame.
You are pleased for them, but you still wanted that relationship, still wanted to be part of that equation.
At the start of Cusack's career, Ger Cunningham shuffled away, departing a training session with no fanfare. Cusack became the man.
Now, Nash is the man. This is the way it's always been with Cork.
As they say, Cork are Cork. But Clare are Clare also. And we know what that means.