Firepower of Galway's big guns to win the day
Just two weekends left in what has been the hurling championship to end all hurling championships. It's down to the final four - Galway, Cork, and two sides that I didn't envisage being here, Clare and Limerick.
It's hard to know whether Cork's preference to come through last Sunday's quarter-final was Limerick or Kilkenny. I assume they're not sorry to see the back of the Cats, and while they'll respect John Kiely's side, they won't fear them. Privately, they have to be fancying their chances. They have beaten Clare twice already, and apparently Cork don't lose All-Ireland finals to Galway. Recent history - 1986, 1990, and 2005 - backs that up. If they get over Limerick next Sunday, we could be on the cusp of a new era for Cork hurling given the talent they have coming through underage ranks.
That's no foregone conclusion though, because after the setback to Clare a month ago, Limerick responded in the best way possible last weekend against Kilkenny. It was a marvellous match and the manner of the win, grinding it out and keeping their heads when Richie Hogan's late goal looked to have swung it Kilkenny's way, is a potentially huge milestone in this team's development. They have the vital intangible now that is momentum, plus the confidence in knowing that Cork couldn't beat them in Páirc Uí Chaoimh when it mattered in early June.
Before all that, Clare and Galway lock horns in the first semi-final on Saturday evening. A couple of weeks after the Tribesmen comprehensively defeated Tipperary in the 2017 League final, these sides played a challenge match behind closed doors in Cusack Park. Basking in the afterglow of that League title, Galway's heads probably weren't where they should have been. Clare's definitely were. They were razor sharp. Micheal Donohue's side failed to lay a glove on them, and they won in a manner that seriously impressed those who witnessed it.
It may have been exactly the jolt of reality the Tribesmen needed at that point in the season, and subsequent events proved that trimming didn't do them any harm. But Galway left Ennis that evening thinking they'd prefer not to run into their closest neighbours in the championship any time soon.
The Galway-Clare rivalry is a strange one, and that typifies it. Historically, Clare's record is good, and whatever way it is the teams match up, they won't have any hang-ups about playing them. Operating in different provinces may have a lot to do with it. Because they don't meet that often in the championship, they're kindred spirits in many respects.
My dad is a Galway man and my mam is from Clare, which may mean I'm biased, but plenty of Clare people supported Galway in the 1980s, when Clare were in the doldrums. That was reciprocated in the '90s, especially in South Galway once their own side's championship interests had been ended. There's certainly nothing like the same poison or bitterness that exists, for example, between Tipperary and Kilkenny, or the bad blood from time to time that characterises Clare's rivalry with their other hurling neighbours, Limerick and Tipperary.
Clare and Galway have only met twice in the championship in the last five years, and with Clare currently in Division 1A and Galway in Division 1B, even League meetings have been few and far between. There's no reason for either side to have an axe to grind, or any beef with their counterparts in the opposing dressing room. Championship-wise, it's one win apiece - Clare pulling off an upset in the 2013 quarter-final; Galway reversing that result at the same stage with a six-point win in 2016.
Whatever friendships exist, however, will be well and truly parked. Nothing personal; just business. The way it has to be when one stands between the other and where they want to get to.
There's no doubt that if Galway reproduce the form that blew Kilkenny away in the first 25 minutes of their replayed Leinster final, it's impossible to see Clare, or anybody else for that matter, being able to live with them. But no two games are ever the same. Clare might have limitations, but they also possess attributes that present an entirely different challenge to anything their opponents have faced in the championship to date.
Up front, every one of the starting Clare forwards has shown good form at one point or other over the course of the summer. John Conlon has been outstanding as a target man at full-forward, and one of the names likely to be shortlisted for Hurler of the Year if such decisions were being made right now. Shane O'Donnell, Tony Kelly and Podge Collins were all excellent last weekend, while David Reidy has been consistently one of Clare's better players for the last two seasons.
Peter Duggan's radar was also back on song against Wexford, and while he needs time and space to be effective, if he gets it, he's as accurate a shooter as anyone on the field. With Conor McGrath, Ian Galvin and possibly even Aaron Shanagher to come off the bench, Clare have options, and the personnel capable of doing damage up front.
Obviously, both Kelly and O'Donnell have been frustratingly inconsistent in 2018. Both were below par in the Munster final, and it's inconceivable that Clare could win without either of them playing well. But being back in Croke Park for the first time since they lit it up in 2013 should bring the best out in both of them. There are certain players on the Clare team - Kelly and Podge Collins among them - who tend to set the tone. When they play well, Clare play well.
While Galway are unlikely to do anything radically different from what they have done to date, and instead concentrate on playing to their strengths and imposing their game on Clare, don't think that Donohue and the Galway brains trust aren't naïve enough to have discussed how their opponents' movement, off-the-ball running and support play need to be countered.
I don't expect to see Galway making too many tactical adjustments, at least not initially. Gearoid McInerney's priority will be to hold the middle at centre back, and to an extent, Tony Kelly will become the responsibility of the midfielders and deep-lying half-forwards. That's a dangerous game to play though. A less mobile Richie Hogan got on a lot of ball in the second half of that replayed Leinster final. If Kelly can find similar pockets of space and get the ball in his hand early on, we all know what he's capable of.
Of course Galway have the option of man-marking Kelly. Pádraic Mannion, arguably their best player this season, is the obvious candidate, with McInerney, for example, moving over to negate Duggan as a puck-out option. That's more likely to be an in-game adjustment however, rather than something they'll deploy from the start. How that scenario plays out could be huge in determining how this match goes.
With the aerial ability Galway have, a big concern for Clare is ensuring they mine enough possession in the first place to ask questions of the Galway defence. Clare know they can't afford to play the game on Galway's terms, and puck-outs, especially their own, will be a hugely important part of that. Donal Moloney and Gerry O'Connor will have their homework done in that department, but the movement needs to be good out the field, and Donal Tuohy will have to be brave in executing it.
The other obvious individual battle will be that between Daithí Burke, All Star full-back in waiting, and John Conlon. Conlon hasn't met anyone like Burke yet, but Burke hasn't met anyone like Conlon either. If the Clareman can even break even here, it will feel like another mini-victory, one of several Clare need to win if they're to come out on top
I don't see either side dominating midfield, especially with so many bodies likely to be out around the middle third, so the game probably hinges on whether or not the Clare defence is good enough to contain the Galway attack. Can they hold out against that power, physicality and firepower Galway seem to have in abundance?
If Clare have forwards in form, so do their opponents. Cathal Mannion gave an exhibition in Thurles two weeks ago, Niall Burke was outstanding in the drawn Leinster final, and we know what Conor Whelan and Joe Canning are capable of. Joseph Cooney hasn't hit the heights of 2017 with the same consistency, but still plays an important role, and Johnny Glynn at 6'5" will be a handful for David McInerney on the edge of the square. The fact that Conor Cooney may have to settle for a place on the bench tells you all you need to know about the depth of attacking talent Galway possess.
Clare will have match-ups in mind, but the way the Galway forwards rotate, means there has to be a fluidity to Clare's response. They can't afford to be dragged all over the field, and out of position. The last thing Clare need is wing backs in the full-back line and isolated in positions they're unaccustomed to playing. That could prove fatal because irrespective of what Clare do, Galway are likely to hit 25 points. If Clare can ensure there aren't a couple of goals to go with that, and it's a big if, then, and only then, will they have a chance to win.
Galway's performance in the Leinster final showed they're beatable when they're below their best. They could afford to stumble and even fall on that occasion. To do so against Clare would be fatal, and that's why I don't think they will. Clare will be closer than a lot of people might think, and if their big guns fire and play to their potential, all bets are off. But it's a different Galway side, a better Galway side, and a more confident Galway side than the one that was too good for the Banner two years ago.
Too many things have to go right for Clare to win. That's not the case for Galway. A stiff test awaits, but one I expect them to come through.
Sunday Indo Sport