For the first time in 16 years, the All-Ireland Final between Clare and Cork will feature two Munster sides, in a match that promises to be a classic between evenly-matched squads.
With perennial powerhouse Kilkenny sent home shockingly early, the door was kicked down by the southern province as they drop a pair of counties into Croke Park on Sunday.
The pressure will be high on both sides. Both Clare and Cork will look to establish themselves as powers in this brave new hurling world while Kilkenny try to rebuild their aging squad. With a pair of fan bases eager to bring home the Liam McCarthy Cup, Croke Park will be as rowdy as at any time in recent years—as always seems to be the case when the Rebels of Cork are involved.
But each team has players who they will rely on heavily, thanks to their similar playing styles and managerial brilliance. Who must step to the plate and deliver the match of their life on Sunday? These players are a good place to start:
Colin Ryan, Clare
Colin Ryan is currently running away with the County scoring title, having netted a 0-51 scoreline this season en route to Croke Park. It's that deft scoring touch that makes the 24-year-old wing forward so essential to Clare's fortunes in the final.
When the ball is live, don't be surprised if you hardly hear from Ryan at all; he's scored just 7 of those 51 points in the flow of play. Instead, the Newmarket-on-Fergus native is crucial to the Banner's hopes because of one thing, and one thing only: frees.
Ryan has hit 38 frees and six 65s over the course of this year's tournament, and it's that automatic skill pointing the ball that Clare need to be successful on Sunday. If Ryan is off the mark, or if the Banner aren't drawing the frees they have previously, this team is going to struggle to score, as the talented forward accounts for 40 percent of the team's scoring this season.
Ultimately, it comes down to this: the more times you see Ryan jogging over to the spot to strike a free, the likelier it is that you'll see Croke decked out in saffron and blue.
Anthony Nash, Cork
Cork have been playing their short-passing, short puckout game for years now, all thanks to mastermind Jimmy Barry-Murphy. The former dual-sport legend turned managerial legend pioneered the style of play that the Rebels have made famous, and the side owes much of its success to its goalkeepers.
First, there was Donal Óg Cusack, one of the greatest of all time. But, the legend was replaced in net by Anthony Nash last season, and the transition has been as smooth as anyone could have hoped.
The 28-year-old Kanturk native has proven himself to be as skilled a shot-stopper as any keeper in senior hurling, and his incredible accuracy on puckouts both short (the Cork specialty) and long are the spark plug in the Rebel offense.
Nash will need to be at the top of his game in this one; Clare are infamous for their defensive pressure, and will challenge any and all puckouts the keeper attempts. On top of that, the Banner aren't known for their ability to score goals. The last thing Nash wants to do in his first All-Ireland final is concede a soft goal and give Clare any kind of momentum.
If Nash is clicking on his puckouts, Cork will be incredibly tough to stop.
Patrick Horgan, Cork
Clare have an automatic free-taker in Colin Ryan, but the Rebels have a strong one of their own: babyfaced assassin Patrick Horgan. The 25-year-old full forward is his team's leading scorer, having delivered 1-30 during this championship campaign.
Unlike Ryan, however, the Blackpool native isn't just a free expert; he's a devastatingly effective offensive weapon who can score from the instant the ball is in his hand if you give him any semblance of space.
Expect to see Horgan knocking down frees alongside Ryan, but don't be surprised if you see him keeping Cork's offense moving in the flow of play as well. If the Rebels want to be hoisting hardware on Sunday, they'll need him to be at his absolute best.
Tony Kelly, Clare
Tom Kelly was praised prior to the semifinals, and the 20-year-old didn't disappoint for the Banner. Kelly scored 0-4 in the match, and was his usual tenacious self, creating scoring chances and jump-starting the offense throughout.
Kelly needs to be even better against Cork; the Rebels have the kind of defense that few teams can consistently break through, and he'll need to be all over the pitch once again if the Banner want to have success.
He's a versatile player, capable of creating anywhere from his official center-forward spot clear back to the center-back position on the pitch. He's at his best when he can roam the pitch, and if Cork give him the opportunity to do that, there's a great chance Clare will be heading home with an All-Ireland title.
He's just at the start of his hurling career, but the Ballyea native has a world of expectations on his shoulders on Sunday. He will need to have the match of his career to drive the Banner to the McCarthy Cup.
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