Wednesday 26 October 2016

Jamesie O'Connor: It's not knockout but a lot riding on result

Today's game is the first of four genuine heavyweight clashes over five weekends

Jamesie O'Connor

Published 24/05/2015 | 02:30

Having had his summer wrecked by injury last year, it’s evident Shane O’Donnell is a man on a mission
Having had his summer wrecked by injury last year, it’s evident Shane O’Donnell is a man on a mission

I saw a comment from a former inter-county footballer last week, that "the only thing worth watching this side of July was the Ulster Football Championship". His rationale? "Intense, dogged, cynical, physical, no margin for error, and always, always competitive".

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Looking at the draws in the other provinces, he might have a point. But only in relation to the bigger ball, because when it comes to the hurling championship, today's Clare-Limerick derby (which has all of the above ingredients, minus the cynicism we hope) begins a run of four genuine heavyweight clashes over the next five weeks: Dublin v Galway next weekend, Cork v Waterford the following Sunday, and Tipperary against today's winners a fortnight later, all loom large on the horizon.

Admittedly, none are knockout contests, with the extra edge that brings. But they're all potentially season-defining in their own right. Don't think for a second, that winning won't matter to Clare, Limerick, Dublin or Galway, given the path a win could clear. So, the appeal of the provincial titles, and especially the Munster Championship, remains - and what a start is in prospect today.

With a full hand to pick from, I'd be very confident that Clare would have the firepower to beat Limerick. But the team that takes the field is shorn of four key starters from the All-Ireland winning side of two years ago, all of whom were All Stars. That leaves some big holes to fill.

Clare knew they'd have to plan without Podge Collins and the suspended Brendan Bugler. And Colm Galvin's decision to head to the US was also flagged some months back. But these are not peripheral figures. Each in his own way was central to the way Clare played.

Given Collins' ability to stitch the play together up front, now more than ever the diminutive Cratloe man's loss is being felt. Bugler was arguably the hurler of the year in 2013.

And there aren't too many better midfielders than Galvin. On a day when both sides are expected to deploy a sweeper system, scores from out the field have added value. In that department, Galvin was never a hit-and-hope merchant. It's the loss of that accuracy from distance, as much as his mobility, athleticism and ability to link defence and attack that Clare will miss.

There would also be a consensus in the county that as Tony Kelly's natural wingman and midfield partner going back to their minor days, Kelly plays better when Galvin is on the field.

After a spring when it felt like Clare were lurching from one crisis to another, the one real positive to emerge for Davy Fitzgerald was the form shown by both Kelly and Shane O'Donnell in the latter stages of the league, and especially against Kilkenny in the relegation play-off.

Having had his summer wrecked by injury last year, it's evident O'Donnell is a man on a mission. He wasn't responsible for the hype that enveloped him in the wake of that man of the match performance in the All-Ireland final, but as a person of genuine substance and character, and not having played a championship minute since, he obviously feels he still has to prove himself. This is good news from Clare's perspective. Better still, the word is that they are both flying. If that's the case, Limerick will have their hands full.

How TJ Ryan goes about curbing them is likely to have been influenced by the confirmation that Conor McGrath's hamstring injury means he'll play no part for Clare this afternoon. This is a blow to the Banner's chances because he is a player who makes a lot of good decisions on the ball, as well as being their best pure finisher. Operating side by side with O'Donnell would have given Clare as potent a goalscoring threat as any side in the championship. That's something Limerick no longer need to legislate for.

Looking at the Limerick selection, Barry Hennessy is rated highly, and they have had time to get him ready in the absence of Nickie Quaid. Cian Lynch from last year's minor team always looked like making the step up, so his inclusion in attack is no surprise.

Paudie O'Brien may be named at midfield, but I'd be very surprised if Paul Browne doesn't play there to renew what's been a very effective partnership with James Ryan. Limerick won't want to see Richie McCarthy isolated one on one with O'Donnell, or leave space that Kelly can exploit, so I'd expect to see O'Brien dropping into the half-back line as an auxiliary defender. Whether that's to double-team Kelly, or allow Gavin O'Mahony to sit in front of O'Donnell may well depend on which of Clare's two key forwards is exerting the greater influence.

At the opposite end, it's a safe bet that Patrick O'Connor will play the sweeper role for Clare to shut down the space in front of Graeme Mulcahy and Shane Dowling. Tactically, it may of course play out differently, but with an extra defender at either end, this game will be won and lost in the middle third. With the players Clare are missing, that's where I think Limerick might have the edge.

Irrespective of how Limerick line out, or what tactics they deploy, what Clare will have to come to terms with quickly is the ferocity and intensity their opponents traditionally bring to the Munster Championship. Coping with that, and in particular their physicality, especially early on, will be Clare's biggest challenge. TJ Ryan's side have shown in recent years that early-season form is irrelevant.

Regardless of how disappointingly the league has ended, it's had no bearing on their ability to be at the perfect pitch when it counts at the end of May or in early June. Tipperary succumbed to it in each of the last two years, and with the memory of the All-Ireland semi-final defeat in 2013 still fresh in their minds, Limerick will want to put Clare on the back foot from the off.

Clare can certainly win. They have the pace and potential match-winners up front to trouble anybody. But McGrath's absence is huge, and the replacements, who may very well come good, are still unproven at this level.

Limerick have fewer question marks, and with Wayne McNamara, Kevin Downes and Seánie Tobin to come in, a more experienced bench to call on in the last quarter. That might be enough to swing it Limerick's way.

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