Waterford lost big May battle but can win June war
Published 04/06/2016 | 02:30
Clare's memorable 2013 All-Ireland adventure, achieved off a spectacular canter through the back door, raised their profile to such a degree that the following statistic may come as a surprise to many in the hurling world.
The Banner have won only one Munster Championship game - against Waterford in the 2013 quarter-final - in the last seven seasons.
It's the worst record of the 14 counties in the Liam MacCarthy tier, excluding Kerry, who entered the top flight for the first time this year. In fact, it's by quite a distance the lowest return among the top seven All-Ireland contenders.
Whether it will have any direct relevance on tomorrow's game is another matter but it once again demonstrates how perception and reality can differ so starkly.
The negative for Clare from such an extended bad run is that it raises questions about their capacity to crank up the Championship campaign right from the start. Waterford (four wins, two draws and one defeat from their last seven opening Munster games) will have noted Clare's early-round jitters.
Psychologically, at least, it provides another little lift for them. Still, there's a positive too for Clare in their run of six defeats from seven games.
It comes under a familiar heading in sport: the law of averages, complete with the likelihood that the longer any sequence runs, the more likely it is to end.
There's also a very different context to Clare's entry to this year's Championship. Unlike previous years, when it came after erratic spring campaigns, they return to Thurles tomorrow as Division 1 champions.
That their success was achieved with a dramatic win over Waterford in a replayed final increases their confidence in a season where they have remained unbeaten in 13 games (four Munster League, nine NHL).
It's an impressive run but then Waterford have been very progressive too.
And while they were caught by two late Tony Kelly points in the League final replay, the reality is that there was only one point between the sides (Clare 1-45 Waterford 2-41) after 160 minutes of action.
The difference is so tiny as to be irrelevant in the overall context of what is developing into a fascinating rivalry.
Naturally, much is being made of the tactical battle between Davy Fitzgerald and Derek McGrath, replete with systems, shapes and match-ups.
Yet, through all the science, an unquestioned fundamental remains in place, as articulated by Fitzgerald this week.
"If they leave us loose, we will hurt them. If we leave them loose, they will hurt us," he said.
But then, that's how it has always been in hurling and applies whether or not players have GPS tracking devices on their backs and whether they are programmed like astronauts.
Ultimately, games are won by players' individual talents. That's forgotten sometimes nowadays amid the clamour to portray sport as a scientific exercise where the planning is more important than the performance.
Of course good structure plays a role but not to the degree modern-day analysis would have you believe.
So while much of the focus for tomorrow's clash is on Fitzgerald v McGrath, the game will ultimately be defined by which team has more players performing at optimum level and which individuals can impose that little extra.
That was perfectly illustrated in the League final replay when Tony Kelly twice stepped up late on to deliver points which turned defeat into victory.
Systems, tactics and psychology had nothing to do with it. Instead, Kelly's technical ability, proven by his point from a pressure free, followed by his instinctive strike for the winning point, decided the outcome.
Both Clare and Waterford have several players who can influence proceedings through the sheer depth of their natural talent so the question is: who will deliver on what is the biggest day of the season so far for both sides?
The suspicion that Clare's poor record in their Munster games over recent seasons has to end sometime makes a case for them.
Still, a hunch says it could be Waterford's day.