Wednesday 21 February 2018

Cyril Farrell: Small tweaks will see Banner utilise Kelly's talent to edge another tactical struggle

Tony Kelly can give Clare the edge against Waterford tomorrow (SPORTSFILE)
Tony Kelly can give Clare the edge against Waterford tomorrow (SPORTSFILE)

Cyril Farrell

By crowding the middle third of the pitch Clare are negating Waterford's running game but they're also robbing Peter to pay Paul with regards to the influence of star man Tony Kelly, so expect to see some minor tweaks tomorrow.

Having watched Waterford blitz Limerick in the closing 35 minutes, Davy Fitz was well warned about the Déise's potential if given free rein in the middle of the park so they clogged up those channels with roadblocks at every turn.

There was no way Waterford were going to be afforded space to dictate proceedings like that again, so what we got was a traffic jam which wasn't particularly eye-pleasing but it served its primary purpose. However, it also crowded out Clare's own key men.

The likes of Kelly and Colm Galvin, Clare's two most influential players, were choked out of the game and got on very little ball. When they did they were effective, but with so many bodies out there Clare shot themselves in the foot.

The Banner wound up with five at midfield as Darach Honan, Podge Collins and Kelly all retreated back from the half-forward line to assist Galvin and David Reidy, but I expect to see their big players on the ball a lot more this time around.

Kelly is not best utilised in a bottleneck and you'll probably see him closer to the posts.

Against Kilkenny there were three in the full-forward line and the two half-forwards were haring in on the breaking ball.

But the last day they had a lone attacker and no-one reacting to the breaks. They sacrificed one of the best hurlers in the country to tackle Waterford's strengths and while it wasn't intentional, Kelly was one of the main players being starved.

There were numerous wides the last day and a lot of the older fellas in Semple Stadium were going nuts but you have to take into account the pressure those players are under when shooting. It's split-second stuff, and the vast majority of shots were from distance.

When you're playing that type of all-action game, no more than Donegal in the football, the conversion rate must be at least 80pc because you're living off scraps and this was where Waterford fell down badly, and will hope for significant improvement.

When you have your opponent on the ropes you must finish the job and Derek McGrath will have to look closely at the frees. They missed enough to win any game and each one is like a nail in your own coffin. In the modern game frees are too important to waste.

Conor McGrath gave the impression he was going to score every time he stepped up for Clare, while you had doubts with Patrick Curran and Shane Bennett. And you can't have any doubts so I'd imagine Maurice Shanahan will assume free-taking duties.

Bennett and Curran showed their mettle when things were going wrong, however, with Bennett finishing strongly and taking the game to Clare when no other Waterford player was, while Curran hit two key points. That's a positive sign for the future.

It is also becoming apparent that there's a shift in the type of player thriving within the game-plan of both set-ups. Smaller, more mobile players now have a huge role to play in that middle third because the issue of not being able to win aerial ball is somewhat redundant.

No-one is contesting the puck-out because it's going short most times and the likes of Tots O'Connell and Reidy are becoming far more effective, likewise Jamie Barron for Waterford. Mobility trumps size because you need to clock serious miles to keep the hooks and blocks count high.

Speaking of size, John Conlon is a huge loss to Clare. He was fresh and eager and making scores as well as finishing them. He was a vital cog in that system but their panel strength is offsetting his absence.

They've got a pep in their step that hasn't been there since 2013 and while you'd imagine the Clare bench is stronger than Waterford's, Tom Devine, Brian O'Halloran and Tommy Ryan all made a massive impact when introduced.

Devine's direct style put Clare on the back foot and Conor Cleary, Brendan Bugler and David Fitzgerald looked a lot less comfortable when he got the chance to open up near the end. He's a huge asset because if bodies are tiring he'll run the legs off you.

It was notable that neither side contested the short puck-out and were prepared to hold back and let the free man hit it long. They were letting Noel Connors and Cian Dillon have the ball while flooding men back in defence, daring the opposition to launch it long saying 'we'll turn it over back here'.

What you might have tomorrow - and if not you'll definitely see it in Championship - is Clare pushing up on the puck-out, which creates more space in their midfield and defence but also forces everyone to fight and contest every ball.

Waterford are more cautious, and unlikely to employ this tactic but with every game Clare will gradually trust their backs more and create opportunities for a potent attack force to cut loose.

Most people believe there's more room for improvement with Waterford after spurning several frees but I just expect Clare to get through another battle. They'll tweak a bit but they'll leave the big tweaking for the big day because neither will reveal too many Championship secrets.

While all eyes will be on Thurles tomorrow, the most important match of the weekend is in O'Connor Park today where Offaly play for their survival against Carlow.

The scoreline, not the result, against Westmeath mystifies me but the big thing for Offaly is that they're getting an instant opportunity for redemption and it's a must-win game, probably their biggest match in years.

You don't want to see teams slipping down. You'll always have the Kilkennys, Tipps and Corks but if you're really interested in hurling's continued development, you need Offaly up there too and I think they'll have a sting in the tail.

In the other round-robin tie, Kerry are the team of the season so far but I expect Westmeath to win. If they want to push on there's no point in winning against Offaly and then losing to Kerry. It's just as big a game and they need to confirm their arrival.

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