Clare vs. Cork: Players Who Must Come Up Huge in All-Ireland Final Replay
Prior to last year's epic clash between Kilkenny and Galway, hurling fans hadn't had the joy of experiencing a replay in an All-Ireland final since 1959.
Now, they get two replays in a row, courtesy of Cork and Clare, who played to a 0-25, 3-16 draw earlier this month.
In the initial conflict, the Banner jumped out to a sizable lead in the early going, only to fade down the stretch and be forced to rally back for a draw at the death.
They'll take the pitch once again, and both sides have players who have to come up big in this clash if they hope to bring glory to their counties.
Who are the most important players in this matchup? As unexpected Clare hero Domhnall O'Donovan showed, it's not always the stars who must have the big games to provide the difference between victory and defeat.
Pa Kelly, Clare
The Clare keeper was the sole reason the Banner survived the encounter with the Rebels last time, coming up huge on several key saves both early in the match and again late. If it hadn't been for his sublime shot-stopping prowess in this match, there's no way Clare would be playing on Saturday.
The 26-year-old Ennis native is one of the older members of manager Davy Fitzgerald's squad, but he's just as inexperienced as the rest of the team, with just 9 starts under his belt at the senior level.
That said, he's already shown the positioning and reflexes to be an elite keeper in the sport, and would frequently be Munster's top choice keeper in the Railway Cup were it not for the presence of Anthony Nash in the same province.
Given the Banner's defensive issues all year, Kelly is going to need to be at his best once again on the defensive side of the ball.
If he's anything less than stellar, the first clash showed us that Clare lack the defensive fortitude to prevent goal-scoring chances.
Cian McCarthy, Cork
The new man in the side for the replay—and the only change to either starting lineup made prior to the rematch—McCarthy is going to have a world of pressure to perform on his shoulders. The 24-year-old half forward will be tasked with repairing what was broken in manager Jimmy-Barry Murphy's system in the first match.
With Cork's usual short puckouts taken away by Clare's high pressure defense, keeper Anthony Nash was forced to resort to hitting the ball long, into the half-forward line, where the advantage lay squarely with Clare.
The Rebels were beaten to far too many balls in the match, and as a result, it will be McCarthy who gets the chance to shine, replacing Jamie Coughlan.
The 24-year-old Glanmire native has one job, and one job only: win puckouts and create scoring chances.
He's extremely adept in the air, with a strong scoring touch that will force the Banner to mark him incredibly closely throughout the match. He's a pass-first forward and will look to win balls and create opportunities for the likes of Seamus Harnedy and Patrick Horgan.
That said, the move isn't without risk.
McCarthy hasn't had a ton of run in the lead-up to the final, and if he struggles, Murphy doesn't have a ton of other options who possess his ability to win aerial battles. If the Rebels are going to survive another final, then McCarthy's going to have to do his job and do it well.
Podge Collins, Clare
I could easily have talked about Tony Kelly here, given his importance to the squad, but the young half-forward hasn't had a bad match this year for the Banner, and his performance is all but assured.
If Clare want to win this replay, instead of playing to a draw, they'll need an incredible performance from Collins.
The 21-year-old corner forward actually plays much more like a full-forward, shifting into the middle of the pitch to win balls and convert chances. He remains one of the Banner's most explosive scoring options, and is their most consistent scorer from the run of play.
He had a strong showing in the first final, and without him, Clare simply don't have the offensive punch to win this match.
Patrick Horgan, Cork
I've spoken at length about Horgan's importance to this team previously, and the 25-year-old proved it in the first title tilt, scoring 0-10 and keeping the Rebels in the match even when their offense was sputtering and stalling.
His ability to score both from frees and from the flow of play makes him the most important man to the Rebel cause.
An off day would all but ensure defeat.
He's a skilled ball-winner when necessary, but it's his direct offensive contributions that Cork are in such dire need of. If they come away with the Liam McCarthy Cup at the end of the night, odds are good that Horgan's scoring touch is the primary reason why.
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