Jamesie O'Connor: In a game of inches, Waterford just have the edge
It's stating the obvious, but the stark reality for either Clare or Waterford is that by 6.0 this evening, one of them is going to be out of the Munster Championship and contemplating life in the qualifiers. With the serious ambitions both sides have, and what these players have invested in it, that will be some bitter pill to swallow.
Even though the stakes haven't changed from when this draw was made last November - and the prize on offer today is still every bit as big - circumstances in the meantime have contrived to elevate this game's importance. The progress of both sides through the league, and particularly what they served up in the league final replay, has franked their credentials as genuine All-Ireland contenders.
These are two of the top four sides, in the country. Legitimate heavyweights, right up there with Tipperary and Kilkenny, which makes today's occasion feel that bit bigger.
Defeat will deal a major blow to the morale of whoever comes out the wrong side, especially as only a handful of the Waterford players possess those coveted Munster championship medals. But I can't see it as being anything other than a temporary setback. Both Clare and Waterford have a substance to them this year that leaves you pretty certain they're in this for the long haul, and likely to be around in August.
They have the talent, the required depth in their respective panels, and more importantly a clear identity. There's no confusion. They know exactly who they are and how they want to play. I'm not sure the same can be said of some of the other counties they're likely to cross swords with in the qualifiers, but that's an issue for another day.
Eight weeks ago, the pressure on Clare heading into this game could have been suffocating. But winning the league has changed everything. Win, lose or draw today, they know they're still good enough to come back from it. Yes, confidence would take a hit, and it's not the path they want to take. But it's a blow, with morale and team spirit where it is, that they're now far better equipped to take than at any time since 2013.
What Clare need to guard against is subconsciously allowing any such notions of that second chance saloon to take root, especially considering this match could well be won and lost in the last ten minutes.
Displaying that mental toughness and keeping their nerve was critical in the league final replay. There's a huge upside to how that game ended, because with silverware already in the bag, and some of the pressure to deliver now off, the shackles could come off completely. A freewheeling, confident Clare would be a threat to anybody, and with the level of class they have up front, would take some serious stopping.
The stakes are arguably higher for Waterford. The manner in which the league final slipped away at the death has to have hurt, especially given the position they were in and the sense of injustice that prevailed afterwards. Derek McGrath will have made every effort to harness that and channel it in the right direction today. That spells danger for Clare, because when you consider the tiny margins that will decide this, the extra little edge that brings to their play could make the difference.
What intrigues me most about Waterford is whether or not they've added something to their play, particularly in attack, that we didn't see in the league final. If Clare have an Achilles heel, it's still at the back, where David McInerney remains a key absentee. Some of the younger Clare backs have done really well and surpassed all expectations. But it's a different challenge when the pace and intensity go up another notch, as they inevitably will today. In Maurice Shanahan's absence, Shane Bennett and Patrick Curran assumed much of the added responsibility up front a month ago, and I thought both embellished their reputations. Shanahan's return gives Waterford a different dimension though, and rather than having to be the focal point of the attack, the youngsters, and Curran in particular, should now benefit from being able to play off him.
Pat O'Connor, as well as he's done, is still out of position at full back and I think Waterford will play Shanahan closer to goal and seek to utilise his height advantage. Clare can always switch Cian Dillon in if necessary, but that's a move they'd be loath to make, given how outstanding he's been in the sweeper role. Derek McGrath will also have noted the problems Tom Devine's strength and direct running caused for the Clare full back line when he came on in the drawn match. So he's a viable option off the bench.
Will Waterford therefore play a more direct style? I think they will, and Clare's ability to contain it will go a long way towards determining the outcome.
For Waterford to pick the locks in the Clare defence, they'll need to see an improvement in the form of both Kevin Moran and Brick Walsh, neither of whom were able to exert any great influence in either of the two league finals.
Brick got little or no change out of Brendan Bugler, but it's Moran who Waterford really need to step up today. He has been the heartbeat of this team, and while Clare supporters can point to the fact that Colm Galvin was equally ineffective, it's inconceivable that Waterford's captain will be as peripheral again.
Defensively, I don't expect Waterford to deviate from the system that's served them well. Clare found it hard to break them down, and didn't really create that many goal chances. The rumours are that John Conlon will start, but its hard to see him being match fit, and I think Barry Coughlan matches up well with him anyway. It took the individual brilliance of Tony Kelly and Conor McGrath to keep Clare in the hunt four weeks ago, and with the extra attention that duo are likely to attract, someone else in the Banner attack will have to step up and score big.
All week long, I've oscillated one way and then the other about who's actually going to win this. Clare have more than enough class to get the job done and if they really fire up front, could win this by five or six points.
But I think Waterford are going to come with a really big performance. It's a very close argument as to whose need is greater, but psychologically, the pendulum may have swung ever so slightly in favour of McGrath's side. It's also hard to escape the fact that injuries to key players means Davy Fitzgerald won't have his first-choice 15 on the field today. Waterford do. In a game of inches, that decides it. Waterford to win.
It's probably unfair to Westmeath that their reward for taking Offaly's scalp and coming out on top in the Leinster round robin is a date with Galway, rather than an eminently more beatable opponent in Laois, who take on the runners-up in Tullamore.
Dumping Kilkenny out of the Leinster under 21 championship won't have helped the Westmeath cause either because the shock-waves of that outcome reverberated around the entire country. It was a staggering result. Unfortunately, it also means that any element of surprise is well and truly gone and with the bounce teams usually get from a new manager, and the strong hand Micheál Donoghue has to play, Galway won't slip up.
It's likely to be a much tighter call in Tullamore. It's been a tough year for Offaly hurling, and there was real pressure on the Kerry match a fortnight ago, given the ramifications of another defeat.
I wouldn't rule Laois out, but the three matches Offaly have under their belt will stand to them. With last year's loss to atone for coupled with home-field advantage and a weakened Laois side on paper, Eamonn Kelly's men should advance to a semi-final meeting with the Tribesmen in a fortnight's time.
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