[caption id="attachment_71217" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="Clare's Patrick O'Connor offloads under pressure from Kilkenny's TJ Reid in last Sunday's league semi-final."][/caption]
KILKENNY and Cork will renew their great rivalry in the May 6 final of the Allianz National Hurling League Division One A final.
You couldn't ask for better. Cork, reborn under Jimmy Barry-Murphy, recorded and outstanding 1-25 to 2-15 success over Tipperary while Kilkenny got the better of Clare by 1-20 to 0-14 in the other Semple Stadium semi-final.
There's just one problem. Cork will be without their captain and goalkeeper Donal Og Cusack after he sustained an Achilles tendon injury which is set to rule him out for the remainder of the season.
It's a devastating blow, not only for the much respected 35-year-old goalkeeper but for the Cork team. His influence in pulling the older and younger members of the new Cork set-up has been immense.
"We are so disappointed for him. He's been a great captain for us, a great leader for the players in the dressing room." stressed manager Barry-Murphy.
"At half-time he said 'go away and look after the players. Don't mind about me. Cork hurling is all that matters and drive on with the team."
Fittingly, that is exactly what Cork did to achieve a seven point victory. Everything suggests that this new Cork outfit is the real deal, good enough to be very serious contenders for the All-Ireland crown.
Before then they could well be crowned National League Champions. The general consensus is that the decider against Kilkenny is going to be a very closely fought affair. Kilkenny's experience is obviously going to work in their favor but they are still missing some key players, most notably Henry Shefflin. Either way, the National League final will be well worth watching.
It wasn't that Cork were at their best throughout last Sunday's semi-final. Indeed, they were level at 0-10 apiece following an average enough first half, the main talking point of which was the injury to Donal Og Cusack.
After saving a long range shot from Tomas Stapleton, he scrambled to push it out of danger. It looked harmless enough but Og Cusack was clearly in enormous pain and had to be stretched off.
The game progressed with Anthony Nash taking over in the Cork goal. He was to pick the ball out of the net twice as Tipperary established a 2-13 to 0-17 lead by the 53rd minute with goals from Brian O'Meara and Eoin Kelly.
It was then that this Cork side showed what they are capable of. Initially, good work from Niall McCarthy provided Luke O'Farrell with the opportunity to slam home a well taken goal.
The time was now right for Barry-Murphy to bring on the two highly rated youngsters Conor Lehane and Darren Sweetman. Both had been kept in reserve because they had exam commitments last week.
Lehane's first touch saw him sweep over a beautifully taken point. Sweetman soon followed his example by skippering past a few defenders and scoring another well taken point.
It was now all one-way traffic as Cork outscored Tipperary by 1-8 to 0-2 from the 53rd minute on. Patrick Horgan finished with 0-9, six from frees, O'Farrell contributed 1-2 and man of the match William Egan got 0-3. Pa Bourke, with 0-7, five from frees, was a disappointing Tipperary's chief scorer.
Manager Declan Ryan admitted: "From our perspective, it was a very flat performance. In fairness to Cork they looked a lot sharper than us today." Barry-Murphy was understandably pleased with his team's second half effort. He said: "I think we are on the right road to being really competitive. This gives us another competitive game before the championship and we are looking forward to it immensely."
So, it seems, are Kilkenny. They, in truth, were pretty average in first half against Clare, only leading by 0-8 to 0-7 at the interval.
With Richie Power missing a penalty, Clare must have felt that they had a chance of an upset. But Kilkenny simply moved up a gear to dominate the second half.
Despite his penalty miss, Power still finished with 0-9 (six frees), while the emerging Matthew Ruth contributed 1-3. Manager Brian Cody commented: "The goal we got early in the second half gave us some breathing space. Overall, it was a very competitive game."
As usual, Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald held some strong views. After initially admitting that Kilkenny fully deserved their victory, he laid into the referee Alan Kelly from Galway.
His argument was that Ruth's decisive second half goal should not have been allowed.
Fitzgerald continued: ""Referees have got to get those decisions right. How come those decisions always go against the Clare's of this world? I think the decisions go with the bigger teams."
JUST a year after winning the National Hurling League title, Dublin have found themselves relegated. They lost out 4-21 to 0-19 to Galway in the Division One A play-off replay at Portlaoise. They could be no complaints, Galway, or rather Joe Canning in particular, were just too
The major difference was the finishing. Whereas Galway scored four goals, two of which came from Canning, Dublin just couldn't find a way past the Galway goalkeeper Fergal Flannery. As good as Flannery was in making a string of outstanding saves, Canning was always going to be man of the match. He finished with 2-7, 1-6 of which came from frees. His second goal was a brilliant effort. Damien Hayes was also back to his best, setting up many of the scores. Paul Ryan did his bit for Dublin, getting 0-11 (eight frees) but this was another case of goals winning games. Anthony Daly, the Dublin manager's only real complaint was the state of the sand covered pitch.
"You look at the scoreline and say we were hammered, but it wasn't like that. We coughed up a few balls and got punished.
"Fair play to them, they won it deservedly. No arguments." Galway boss Anthony Cunningham was well pleased, commenting: "This gives us a bit of confidence going into the championship.
"We've done well in the league, albeit with a poor performance against Kilkenny. We've secured our position in Division One A and it's up to our guys to drive on."
Meanwhile, Dublin and Roscommon have qualified for the All-Ireland Under 21 final after beating Cork and Cavan in the semi-finals.
Dublin were enormously impressive in defeating a talented Cork outfit 3-11 to 0-14 in Portlaoise, Philip Ryan (two) and Jack McCarthy got the goals.
Over at Pearse Park in Longford, nearly 8,000 spectators turned up to see Roscommon defeat Cavan by 2-7 to 2-2. Conor Daly and Colin Compton found the back of the net for Roscommon. Compton's effort in the dying minutes was a gift but there was no disputing that Roscommon fully deserved their victory.
LEINSTER prepared for this weekend's Heineken Cup semi-final against Clarmont with a 16-8 away victory over their fellow semi-finalists Ulster. Their RaboDirect Pro12 meeting at Ravenhill on Friday night was a hard fought affair with Leinster fully deserving their victory. Importantly, they had no major injury worries to complain off.
But Ulster did lose Chris Henry, Paddy Wallace and Pedrie Wannenburg during the game which is hardly ideal prior to Saturday's Heineken Cup semi-final against Edinburgh at the Aviva Stadium. Fortunately, coach Brian McLaughlin is optimistic that all three will recover in time.
Leinster coach Joe Schmidt was delighted, most especially that there are no injury worries.
He said: "It will be a hell of a task against Clarmont away, no we need everyone available."
Flanker Kevin McLaughlin scored Leinster's try with the remainder of their points coming from the boot of Jonathan Sexton. Good work from Wallace provided Johann Muller with the opportunity to get Ulster's try, although there was some doubt as to whether he had grounded the ball properly.
His effort must have given Ulster fan Rory McIlroy and his girlfriend Caroline Wosnaicki in the Ravenhill stand some hope of a home victory but Leinster regained control. Remarkably, they have now won all of their six games against the other Irish
provinces in the RaboDirect Pro12 League.
Elsewhere, Munster made certain of a RaboDirect semi-final spot by drawing 20-20 away to the Scarlets. But they will face an away semi-final, probably against the Ospreys. Donnacha Ryan and Simon Zebo scored their tries with Ian Keatley converting both and landing two penalties.
Connacht continued their good finish to the season with a 19-16 victory over Aironi at the Sportsground. Their only try came from the wonderfully named prop Rodney Ah You from New Zealand. The victory means that they have moved up to eight place in the table with just one game left. That match is, however, away to a high flying Glasgow side, determined to make certain of a semi-final place.
Meanwhile, international second-row Mick O'Driscoll has become the latest Munster player to announce his retirement. The 33-year-old, who was capped 23 times by Ireland, follows in the footsteps of John Hayes and Jerry Flannery. He said: "It has been a tough decision. I have enjoyed my career, but now is the time to move on."
ADAM NOLAN and Paddy Barnes have become the latest Irish boxers to qualify for the London Olympics.
The two Irish fighters made certain of their places in Trabzon, Turkey. Wexford man Nolan, in fact, won the 69 kg gold medal at the Olympic qualifying event by beating Germany's Patrick Wojocicki on countback after they had finished level at 14-14.
Barnes qualified by reaching the semi-finals of the 49 kg division. But he was far from happy that the decision went to his Turkish opponent Ferhat Pehlivan.
"It wasn't even that it was close, I hammered him. The whole crowd knew it" argued Barnes..
That verdict followed an even more controversial decision which went against the highly rated Joe Ward early in the week. The 18-year-old light-heavyweight from Moate was rated as a real contender for the Olympics but will not be going to London after losing out to a 18-15 scoreline against another Turkish contestant, Bahran Muzaffer.