Super Sexton seizes the day

IT’S safe to say that a McGrath Cup triumph in January never made a winter or a spring, but at the dawn of 2019 this first pre-season tournament success for Clare in 11 years was as welcome as it was deserved on Saturday afternoon.
Yes, Colm Collins’ side made very heavy weather of notching that success, but in the gap of danger and what threatened to be a very disappointing defeat they found the little bit extra that was needed to get them over the line.
Substitute Keelan Sexton provided that x-factor, thanks to thumping over 0-4 in the second half as Clare eventually put a mistake-ridden performance behind them for once and for all to get home to a three-point victory.
A crowd of 932 turned up in the home of the county senior championship for this one, but far from being enthused by the fare coughed up by both sides this was a very trying experience and spectacle before a late Banner surge lifted the gloom that the misty rain and comedy of errors had brought to proceedings for much of the 70 minutes.
With Cork fielding a completely different starting 15 to the side that beat Limerick in the semi-final the previous Sunday it was expected that a more experienced Clare side would cash in and cruise to victory.
It was anything but a cruise, however, as they were thankful for a freak goal on eight minutes from Gordon Kelly to give them an interval lead of 1-3 to 0-3.
At that start of his 14th year of senior inter-county fare Kelly raided from corner-back and when in sight of the posts had a go for a point from 35 yards, only for his effort to drop short into the back of the net past a startled Chris Kelly in the Cork goal.
With the wind at their backs this was both a tonic start for Clare and a swift response to a Cian Kiely point that opened the scoring after five minutes, but thereafter both sides played more bad football than good as the new three-handpass only rule mitigated more than helped both teams’ quality.
Into this vacuum stepped grinding mediocrity, with Cork just managing a couple of Stephen Sherlock frees in the remaining 30 minutes of the half, while Cathal O’Connor grabbed two for Clare before captain Gary Brennan raised some cheer before the break with a good point from play to put his side three clear.
And when Brennan started the second half with another booming point, which was followed by a Keelan Sexton free it looked as if a Clare side buttressed by a 1-5 to 0-3 lead would kick on to a comfortable victory.
It would have been only they stopped playing and from a position of hegemony leaked five points between the 45th and 53rd minutes as Cork drew level going into the final quarter.
Mark Collins began Cork’s charge with a good point from play before substitute Damian Gore found the range from a placed ball and then play, while Eoghan McSweeney and Collins again completed their recovery to leave matters at 1-5 to 0-8.
With the wind at their backs it looked as if Cork would kick on, but crucially Clare never allowed them hit the front and after Sexton and Peter Kelleher traded points by the 60th minute it was the home side that found more coming down the stretch.
It was Kilmurry Ibrickane man Sexton who provided the inspiration, adding to his brace of frees with a rousing effort from play on 63 minutes to edge Clare 1-7 to 0-9 ahead before he then doubled the advantage with another free on 68 minutes.
For Clare, all that was left was to avoid the sucker-punch of late goal as happened in last year’s decider in Mallow as the Rebels struck for a winner — they ticked that box thanks to the brilliance of Gary Brennan who kept four Cork defenders occupied before setting Dean Ryan free on goal as he fisted over the insurance score in the third minute of injury time.
With that it was time to move on. And quickly, because any repeat of this against Ulster champions Donegal on 27 January and Clare football will be in for a torrid afternoon.

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