Tuesday 20 February 2018

Comment: Clare v Waterford midfield 'war zone' creates a great contest but not a great game

Waterford’s Tom Devine can find no way past Clare’s Cian Dillon Photo: Sportsfile
Waterford’s Tom Devine can find no way past Clare’s Cian Dillon Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

A game that played tricks with the mind. For so long it was turgid, choked, tense and far too slavish to discs on a whiteboard back in Caherlohan or Carriganore.

When the attendance (19,498) flashed up on the screen at half-time you wondered were they feeling as cheated as Irish Water subscribers and considering lobbying for a refund. The scoreline was 0-7 to 0-6, the wide count an appalling 12-6.

Neither goalkeeper was vaguely troubled in that opening period and it wasn't until Conor McGrath flashed a shot from a tight angle in the 47th minute that Stephen O'Keeffe had to stretch a sinew.

So much ball was needlessly swept down the throats of the resident sweeper at either end. Time after time. Cian Dillon and Darragh Fives had field days.

Couldn't anyone on the Waterford side see that the idea of repeatedly dropping a high ball down on top of 19-year-old Shane Bennett, flanked by hardened defenders like Dillon and Pat O'Connor, just wasn't working?

Similarly Peter Duggan's two-on-one with Barry Coughlan and Fives could only produce one result. Yet for too long it was unsighted.

Darach Honan, Clare, and Jamie Barron and Tadhg de Búrca, Waterford, in a tussle during the game Photo: Sportsfile
Darach Honan, Clare, and Jamie Barron and Tadhg de Búrca, Waterford, in a tussle during the game Photo: Sportsfile

Well into the second half it was still knotted like a badly tangled garden hose.

When Jake Dillon got on the end of a 55th-minute clearance from Tadgh de Burca, his instinct was to deliver over his shoulder into the general vicinity of the Clare goals. But what he found instead was No Man's Land, a ball landing in isolation. The sides were still locked together at 0-11 each and the pulse was fading fast.

Maybe this is what you get when two teams crafted and set up in almost mirror-image to each other can't work a way around their pre-programmed ways for so long. And the game really suffered.

Hurling is now in the throes of the same argument that Gaelic football has been immersed in for much of this decade now. Where does the balance lie between pragmatism and an obligation to, in some way, entertain?

The majority of the 39 wides were accumulated in this period, the flooding of bodies around the middle third making life difficult for the strikers.

But it changed because it simply had to change. No game of hurling ever stays on the same path. The temptation to open up and go for it in sight of the finish line will always supplant any system.

Clare goalkeeper Patrick Kelly under pressure from Waterford’s Michael Walsh during their Allianz NHL final Photo: Sportsfile
Clare goalkeeper Patrick Kelly under pressure from Waterford’s Michael Walsh during their Allianz NHL final Photo: Sportsfile

By the end of normal time it had moved into edge-of-the-seat category and you had to applaud the effort that both sets of players invested in the pursuit of every ball and credit the individual feats of defence rather than the collective quality.

The idea that one or other might leave something in the locker for June 5 could be scratched by the frantic finish. The tactical strait-jacket loosened, players seemed to think for themselves a little more.

When Conor McGrath stood over a free from out on sideline won by Cathal O'Connell, you just sensed that he would score it.

They were level 11 times in all, inseparable at the end of the first period of extra-time and again as the clock stopped past the 90-minute mark just after Maurice Shanahan had shown the 'liathroidi", as his brother Dan put it afterwards, to land a monster 85-metre free. Dan's suggestion that there was a bit of heckling from the "Clare bench" only serves to illustrate the importance of this contest. It wasn't one to leave behind.

"That's probably one of the most tactical games I was involved in but we really enjoyed it," said Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald. It was, sensed Fitzgerald, the reason why the radars were so off cue: the congestion was just too great for freedom of movement.

"That would come from it being congested in the middle. There isn't as much space as normal. That 45 to 45 was a war zone, that's what it was there today and that's why there would have been wides.

"I think Waterford had more wides than us in the first half, but the reason it was that way is because we were trying to make them shoot from as far out was possibly could."

McGrath was the game's shining beacon, for so long the only forward with capacity to exploit space.

The aerial bombardment that proved so successful against Kilkenny was met with more secure defensive systems here. By the 53rd minute Clare had withdrawn all their more elevated attackers, Peter Duggan, Darach Honan and Aaron Cunningham.

That they stayed with it, however, when Waterford appeared to be getting a firm grip in the last quarter and again in the first period of extra-time will be heartening for Fitzgerald. For Tony Kelly, 90 minutes will really bring him on again.

Waterford have much to reflect on. Their wide count is on obvious starting point, 19 in normal time, 20 overall and four more attempts that dropped short. Their account contains seven frees, a 65 and two sidelines. Austin Gleeson, Patrick Curran and Shane Bennett all chipped in on that wide count.

For Gleeson it has been a recurring theme throughout this League despite some of the magic moments he has produced.

Bennett limped off near the end to a hero's reception, his hard running down the final stretch in normal time to pick off a point and win a free still fresh in the memory.

But he had his challenging moments too, a trio of missed frees in the second half and when he was twice turned over during that first period of extra-time as Clare closed a three-point gap.

They struggled on their own puck-outs too, failing to control six of their own by our count in the first half, while two in the second half of normal time led directly to scores from McGrath (free) and Podge Collins.

You couldn't argue with Fitzgerald's contention about the benefits for hurling that these team go at it again next weekend.

But a great contest doesn't constitute a great game. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If the first 60 minutes or so was a vision of hurling's future it wasn't pretty.

Irish Independent

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