Wednesday 20 September 2017

Rachel Wyse: Answers will come a little easier for Rebels

Cork's Stephen White in action against Podge Collins of Clare during the drawn All-Ireland final at Croke Park
Cork's Stephen White in action against Podge Collins of Clare during the drawn All-Ireland final at Croke Park

Rachel Wyse

No one that ever lived did so without having regrets and only the lucky are privileged to get a second chance. However, three weeks ago, when Brian Gavin blew his whistle to end the All-Ireland hurling final, I'm certain the hurlers of Clare and Cork felt anything but lucky.

As spectators caught their breath, for the men that made the occasion, the All-Ireland final quickly became an anti-climax, their thoughts consumed with 'what if' and 'if only' scenarios.

Underperforming hurlers were in the majority in the Rebels dressing-room and I suspect many heads were scrambling to rationalise the previous 70 minutes.

For Clare, their regret was different. They performed satisfactorily, but failure to capitalise on spells of complete dominance left the door ajar for their opponents.

While All-Ireland finals are for winning, walking off the field without regret is also on top of your list of priorities. So, with the passing of time will have come clarity, a realisation and perspective around today's opportunity.

The hurlers of Cork and Clare are lucky and the team who realise that fact and appreciate it the most will quickly become apparent in Croke Park today. As the week passed and the game began to concentrate the mind, I could not but wonder is there a sense of déjà vu about this afternoon's proceedings.

FAMILIAR

Remember Galway last year and how they dominated Kilkenny for large parts of the initial offering last September, yet found themselves desperately seeking an equaliser with time almost up. Sound familiar? It will to Clare supporters.

In the past few days, Galway's manager Anthony Cunningham offered: "When it comes to a replay, you have to do something different, you've got to take what you learnt the first day and use it to your advantage."

Galway failed in that department last year and paid the price.

However, there is a danger that too much emphasis is placed on change rather than concentrating on getting a performance from every single player.

Twelve months ago, Kilkenny introduced Walter Walsh for the replay and he made a decent contribution to his county's victory, but the principal reason Kilkenny were successful was that considerably more of their players performed to the required levels when compared with the drawn match.

Walsh's inclusion would have probably been a source of great debate if those around him had not performed. In victory, his inclusion was a stroke of genius, the difference, some argued. It wasn't, just as changes won't be for Cork or Clare if the majority of their men aren't playing well.

Cork have much room for improvement. From midfield up, they were dominated by Clare in the drawn game. The aggression and determin-ation of Clare suffocated the Rebels. Davy Fitzgerald's men created an environment were you needed more than fast hands and dancing feet to survive.

Worryingly for Cork, it was an environment that exposed glaring chinks in their armour. A number of Cork players need to show they have more in their locker than just being brilliant ball-players.

If their will to win hasn't radically increased over the past three weeks, then Liam MacCarthy will most likely be heading to the Banner County.

Goals win games, they say, and they very nearly did for Cork the last day. That facet of their game was a positive as was the class of Patrick Horgan, Anthony Nash's abilities at both ends along with the performances of Shane O'Neill and his defence.

Clare's failure to raise a green flag cast a shadow over their significant achievements in the first match. For all their good hurling and ability to score points from long distance, paradoxically, their methods make it so very difficult for them to win games.

When a team's instinct is to focus on scoring points, they are susceptible to seeing large periods of good work being undone through the concession of goals. Events the last day showed as much when Cork achieved in 20 minutes what Clare spent 70 minutes doing. Concession of goals for Clare carries more significance than it normally does for a team playing with a more orthodox approach.

It's a potential disaster, and the deployment of a defensive sweeper by Clare's management all year would indicate that they hold the same view.

Clare's modus operandi also allows very little margin for error and their wide count must be low. Every shooting opportunity must be successfully availed of.

A day will come when shots from long range won't go over and, on such a day, Clare will struggle.

Will Fitzgerald's young players show the same appetite for victory as they displayed in early September?

The same situation was a game too far for Galway last year and, after putting so much effort into the drawn match, there is a considerable risk Clare might suffer the same fate. Fitzgerald must decide whether or not to revert to the sweeper formation in the hope that an extra presence in defence will eliminate Cork's goal threat.

This is a double-edged sword though, as leaving a Cork defender free will allow time and space to those clearing ball into the Cork forwards. We all saw how the Leeside attack struggled when deliveries up field were hurried and the risk of very skilful forwards receiving pin-point supply would create a different set of headaches for Clare management.

Whatever way you try to analyse events, Clare appear to have shown more of their hand and Cork most certainly have the greater scope for improvement.

I fancied Cork to win it the first day and I've seen nothing to change my mind. Three weeks ago, Clare got most things right, while Cork got most things wrong.

Yet Clare were the ones dependant on a most unlikely hero to execute their rescue plan. Questions hang over both sides, but I feel the answers will come a little easier for Cork.

Irish Independent

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