OPINIONS may be divided as to who will claim the All-Ireland senior title but all are agreed that there will be little between the sides.
Tactics are a dominant topic. Will Clare continue with the sweeper system that was so effective in the wins over Galway and Limerick? In the event of this happening, what will Cork do to counteract the ploy? Will Brian Murphy return to the Cork starting line-up having missed their semi-final win over Dublin due to injury? If so, will he again be assigned the role of marking Tony Kelly, which he did so effectively in the Munster semi-final?
What is certain is both management teams have put hours and hours of thought and planning into what tactics they will put into practice on Sunday.
Two months ago, few would have predicted a meeting of the Rebels and the Banner in the final.
Clare were comprehensively beaten by Cork in the Munster semi-final. The Leesiders then went down to Limerick in the provincial final. Both were still in the race for the McCarthy Cup but neither were ready to compete for the big prize.
The backdoor awaited and both teams’ form since then has been remarkable. Their respective quarter-final and semi-final successes has whetted appetites for a cracking contest.
Neither management will name their final line-up until later in the week but little change is expected from the semi-final starting positions. The availability of Brian Murphy for Cork has given Jimmy Barry Murphy and his selectors food for thought. He is expected to start with the experienced Tom Kenny the possible casualty.
Clare are expected to go with the same 15 as that against Limerick. John Conlon was replaced in the semi-final with a shoulder injury but he returned to training last week and it is believed he will be ready for action on Sunday.
Cratloe’s Cathal McInerney is pressing strongly for inclusion and while he hasn’t started any championship game this summer, he has made vital contributions when introduced. He is a proven score-getter and is likely to taste action at some stage of the game.
Nicky O’Connell, Peter Duggan and Shane O’Donnell are also challenging for game time.
Cork are in a similar situation with Stephen Moylan, Stephen White and Cathal Naughton pressing for inclusion. In Anthony Nash, the Leesiders have the game’s leading goalkeeper. He is a key figure in the team’s tactics with his puck-outs and free-taking.
Lorcan McLoughlin and Daniel Kearney have developed into a strong midfield pairing while, up front, they have outstanding young players in Conor Lehane, Seamus Harnady and Jamie Coughlan who will provide good support for their top scorer Patrick Horgan and team captain Pa Cronin.
They will, arguably, provide the Clare defence with its most searching test to date. Cork could push up one of their midfielders to limit the space for captain Pat Donnellan, assuming the sweeper tactic is continued by Clare. If so, what effect will this will have on the Clare game plan appears to be a key question.
The defence has been very consistent this summer and if the half-backs can gain a grip then it should help Clare’s chances greatly.
On the other side, much has been made of how well Brian Murphy did against Tony Kelly in the provincial semi-final. Since then, the play of Paudge Collins has been a huge part of victories and it will be interesting to see how the Leesiders cope with the will-o-the-wisp Cratloe man.
Darach Honan and Conor McGrath in the inside line have the ability to make it very uncomfortable for their opponents.
Both teams are well served with free-takers, with Colin Ryan and Patrick Horgan in outstanding form this season and they will have key roles to play.
It’s a very hard outcome to call. Both have some of the most skilful men currently playing hurling in their line-up. Both are young and playing with a high level of confidence.
Unlike many meetings of the counties over the years, Clare go into this final with many of their players having tasted provincial and All-Ireland successes at minor and U-21 levels, something that is sure to give them confidence.
Clare have the hurling, the skill and the fitness required to win what would be the county’s fourth All-Ireland title. Cork believe they are equally well endowed in these areas. There won’t be much in it when Brian Gavin sounds the final whistle. While one is always wary when playing Cork in a senior championship game, Clare have what it takes to ensure an historic week in the county’s GAA history gets off to the right start.
By Seamus Hayes