Wednesday 15 August 2018

Galway will bring more variety this time and try to kill off Banner early

Clare’s Colm Galvin tries to stop Galway’s Cathal Mannion in his tracks last Saturday. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Clare’s Colm Galvin tries to stop Galway’s Cathal Mannion in his tracks last Saturday. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Jamesie O'Connor

Maybe it's the fact you feel more invested in it when your own county's there and you know what's involved; or perhaps it's the adrenalin rush that comes with working on the live TV coverage - but hours after last Saturday night's All-Ireland hurling semi-final, I was still buzzing. I didn't sleep a wink. Even on Sunday morning, reflecting on the game brought a grin to my face. I wasn't the only one. Most of the people I met who had been at the match were basking in the same after-glow that you only get on those really special occasions.

The game may not have been one for the purists. At times it was error-ridden with some dodgy defending, a plethora of poor wides and, from a Galway perspective, a certain level of disappointment at how they played. But by God did it make up for it in terms of drama, suspense and incident.

What a match. You couldn't take your eyes off it. Ebbing and flowing, it sucked the neutrals in, and for anyone from Clare or Galway, it played havoc with their emotions.

For the umpteenth time in this year's incredible hurling championship, we've seen two teams go at it and empty themselves for the cause. The players deserve massive credit for the honesty, commitment and effort they gave over almost 100 minutes. It's no surprise that the majority of them were out on their feet at the end of it.

And just when we thought the hurling year couldn't get any better, it did. Less than 24 hours later, Cork and Limerick produced another classic. There were so many standout moments: Cian Lynch's goal, Daniel Kearney's display for Cork, Nickie Quaid's unbelievable last-ditch intervention with Seamus Harnedy poised to strike the decisive blow, Pat Ryan's outrageous finish, Shane Dowling's penalty, and the balls the Limerick management showed in going for goal. And that's only scratching the surface.

How did Cork contrive to lose it considering they were six points up with eight minutes left? How hard are Limerick going to be to beat in the final? For anyone who made a weekend of it, has there ever been a more thrilling 24 hours in GAA history?

Without trying to come across as some kind of hurling evangelist, last weekend was special. The great thing was in the way it seemed to capture the imagination of the wider public, and not just that of the hurling or even broader GAA community.

Those of us who grew up with the game are familiar with the beauty and intrinsic Irishness of it. But the fact that so many non-hurling people seemed to enjoy and appreciate what the players served up was fantastic.

A friend of mine said he saw a tweet from someone that summed up the weekend. 'Stumbling breathless out of Croke Park for the second day in a row, after another epic. Greatest sport in the world, we're lucky to have it.' I couldn't agree more.

And today, Clare and Galway go at it again. It struck me last Saturday how annoyed Micheál Donoghue appeared to be at the final whistle. Whether he had issues with the referee - particularly the 40 seconds James Owens played after the three signalled minutes of additional time at the end of extra time had expired during which Clare got the equaliser - or just aspects of Galway's performance, I don't know, but he certainly didn't look happy.

That's understandable, because after the replay with Kilkenny the last thing Galway wanted was another match. Whatever plans were drawn up last November to retain their title, believe me, they didn't include these extra games that mentally and physically have to be taking their toll.

Privately, Donoghue must be fuming that it ever came to this. When Joe Canning pointed in the 16th minute to put Galway 1-7 to 0-1 ahead, it appeared to be game over - and it should have been. Had they been more clinical, the scoreboard could easily have read: Galway 2-11 Clare 0-1. Cathal Mannion butchered one goal chance with a poor first touch, Donal Tuohy came off his line really quickly to deny Johnny Glynn another, and the four wides they had in that period were all from scoreable positions.

If they had taken half of those opportunities there would have been no way back for Clare. That profligacy in front of the posts - eight further wides, 12 in all before half-time - is what really undid the Tribesmen. Any time that wides figure gets into double digits over 70 minutes you run the risk of keeping the opposition in the match. That's the price Galway paid, because even with the tactical adjustments Clare made, they still had chances to be out of sight.

There's also likely to be a level of regret at how one-dimensional Galway became after that impressive opening quarter. The long-ball tactics into Glynn and Conor Cooney yielded obvious early dividends. But Clare gradually got to grips with it, and with Colm Galvin sweeping in front of the full-back line, it became less effective as the game wore on.

Glynn's size and aerial ability mean he's always a threat, especially close to goal. The downside is that Conor Whelan and Cathal Mannion saw very little of the fast, diagonal ball played in front of them, that they thrive on, which curbed their influence and played into Clare's hands.

I expect to see more variety in Galway's game this afternoon. Obviously, going long to Glynn remains an option, but I also think we'll see a concerted effort to get their better players and more accurate shooters on the ball more frequently - especially Whelan, Canning and Mannion.

Galway can't afford to leave Clare hanging around heading into the final quarter, so there's bound to be an emphasis in the Galway camp on another fast start, and going for the early kill. If they build up a nine-point lead this afternoon, there's no way they will be letting Clare back into it.

Clare will expect a backlash, but knowing there's a blitzkrieg coming and being able to resist it are two different things. Delighted as the Clare management must have been at the resilience and courage the players showed to stay in the match, they've also got to be realistic. A repeat of the opening 15 minutes and it's game over.

Galway were completely out-foxed by Galvin in the sweeper role. They weren't expecting it, and Aidan Harte had a poor outing as Galway's extra defender at the opposite end. These things will have been accounted for today, and the element of surprise in that department no longer exists.

Nonetheless, for every action, there's a reaction. John McIntyre, sports editor of the Connacht Tribune, speaking on Clare FM on Friday evening, alluded to the confidence among Galway supporters that the Tribesmen are going to win this game well. The groundswell of opinion is that a repeat of the Leinster final is on the cards, with Galway putting Clare to the sword. McIntyre didn't agree with those sentiments and neither do I.

Clare will have to dig in and weather the early storm, but that's something they will have prepared for and talked about. They'll have learned as much about Galway as Donoghue and Co did about them. What they now know - and they didn't before last weekend - is that there's very little between Galway, Limerick and themselves. This All-Ireland is there for the taking.

Clare will have to defend better and they have to get their match-ups right at the back. There was a spell late in the game when Séadna Morey ended up on Glynn, and considering the height difference, that was asking for trouble. Avoiding those mismatches while trying to create their own at the other end will go a long way to determining the outcome.

Although he is named at centre-back, it appears unlikely that Gearóid McInerney will make it, and that creates a major headache for Donoghue. Peter Duggan caused all sorts of problems last weekend - he had 24 possessions, whereas his counterpart in the number ten jersey for Galway, Joseph Cooney, had only five. I think McInerney will be earmarked for Duggan, if he is fit to start. If not, the speculation is that Cooney will revert to the half-back line to pick up Clare's free-taker instead. 
Cooney is struggling to regain the form he showed last year, and maybe the change of scenery is exactly what he needs. But it's a big call if it happens, and evidence of how little cover Galway appear to have at the back. There's the added complication of who picks up Tony Kelly and how they account for him.

Clare are also likely to consider switching Cathal Malone and David Reidy. I think Reidy would profit from the extra freedom he'd get at midfield, where Malone struggled badly to get to grips with David Burke. The other advantage is that Malone rather than Reidy on the wing provides them with the option of going down the other flank with the puck-out, something that wasn't available last Saturday.

In terms of the other injuries, how fit are Canning, Adrian Tuohey and Whelan? Daithí Burke was a doubt coming into the game. They're all big players for Galway, especially Canning. While he's worth having on the field for his presence and dead ball skills alone, he's clearly not 100 per cent fit, and they're a lesser side for it.

For all the talk about the strength in depth Galway have in attack, Clare have arguably the deeper bench. If the game is still tight heading into the last 15 minutes, Clare have David Fitzgerald, Ian Galvin, Aron Shanagher and Jason McCarthy to call on - all of whom made an impact last Saturday. That's not to mention Conor McGrath who, even out of form, remains a potential difference maker. Either way, it'll be the parade at 1.55 before we have a real sense of just what the starting 15s will actually be.

I'm more optimistic about Clare's chances now than I was a week ago. Obviously the big names - John Conlon, Kelly, Shane O'Donnell and Galvin - all need to play well and it'll take a big performance to pull it off. They all stepped up when the need was greatest last Saturday though, and it wasn't lost on the Clare players how drained Galway looked as the game wore on. The game-plan this week might involve a greater degree of running to ask a few more questions in that department.

Who wins? Galway's ability to respond and edge clear every time Clare drew level last Saturday showed that the resolve they had last summer is still there. Goals could decide this and with Glynn on the edge of the square, I think they'll get a few opportunities. That could make the difference, but don't write Clare off, it's that hard to call.

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