Sunday 17 December 2017

Jamesie O'Connor: Clare will have to take long route to secure title at second time of asking

Shane O'Donnell returns to the Clare team this afternoon
Shane O'Donnell returns to the Clare team this afternoon

Jamesie O'Connor

Seven six to Clare at half-time. Fifteen points all at the end of normal time. Sixteen of the 30 scores from frees, and scarcely a clear goal-scoring opportunity in the 70 minutes. If you closed your eyes and didn't consider the 39 wides, it sounds more like a football match.

Should that have surprised us? Maybe after the totals they posted in the semi-finals (4-22 and 3-23) it was reasonable to hope we might see a more attack-minded philosophy from both managers. Not a chance. This is who these teams are, and this is how they play. They make no apologies for it, nor should they. And with similar sweeper systems, and neither prepared to cede an ounce of the initiative to the opposition, both sides effectively cancelled each other out.

While it was always going to be tight, tactical, and congested - often with 20 or more bodies in the middle third - I didn't expect the first 60 minutes to be as turgid as it was. It took Waterford 12 minutes to register their first, and only, score from play in the opening half. But Clare managed just three from play themselves, and having gone 0-6 to 0-3 ahead, then went over 15 minutes without scoring until Conor McGrath's stoppage-time free edged them a point clear at the break.

Things continued in much the same vein after the interval. Huge energy and effort expended in the middle third, and in keeping possession; players being forced to shoot from distance, and a pair of sweepers at either end so adept at reading the play and protecting their own goal, that the long direct ball, that Clare in particular had profited from in recent weeks, yielded little or no dividend.

At times I was left wondering how Waterford expect to beat the top sides in high summer without pushing more bodies forward, in support of what was often a one-man full-forward line. Yet, when you reflect on it, the system works for the players they have. They shot 18 wides, eight of which were from placed balls. Had their free-takers displayed the same precision as McGrath at the other end, it would surely have made the difference. They also created the better goal chances, particularly after Tom Devine's introduction.

Clare, employing essentially the same tactics, hardly had a sniff at the other end, and despite going three points clear with the wind at their backs in the second half, it was Davy Fitz's side who had to come from behind to force extra-time.

What was also encouraging for Derek McGrath were the contributions from play of Patrick Curran and Shane Bennett. Bennett in particular was outstanding in the second half, but Curran, despite being relieved of the free-taking duties, also chipped in with a couple of crucial points from play. On a day when such scores were at a premium, and things weren't going well, it's a positive sign of his maturity. With Maurice Shanahan likely to be in the frame to start, and assume the free-taking responsibilities, and another week's training under Pauric Mahony's belt; plus Devine's proven ability to make a meaningful contribution off the bench, I'm a little less confident than a week ago about my own county's chances.

Clare will again have to plan without John Conlon, now a serious doubt for the championship opener in a month's time. Equally worrying is David McInerney's continued absence with a back injury. But outside of that duo, some of the injury clouds are lifting. Conor Ryan should be available, and both Seadhna Morey and Jack Browne got much needed game time off the bench last Sunday. Tony Kelly also needed the 70 minutes in his legs, and should be sharper than he was last Sunday. With half of Clare's starting forward line failing to really contribute, and Colm Galvin also underperforming, it'll be interesting to see to what extent Davy shuffles his pack. There are definitely selection decisions to be made. Shane O'Donnell, Colin Ryan and especially Cathal O'Connell will all come into the reckoning for starting positions, with both Bobby Duggan and Aaron Shanagher other potential options.

With that many mouths to feed, competition for championship places will be frenetic in the weeks ahead. Possession is still nine tenths of the law though. No one starting, outside of a handful on both sides, can afford to be complacent, with the strength in depth both managers can call on. That alone, not to mention the prize at stake ensures that any talk of shadow boxing this afternoon from either side is surely misplaced.

Whatever last Sunday may have lacked on the aesthetic front, the effort and commitment couldn't be faulted. The tactical nature of the match admittedly isn't for everyone, and today's attendance may well reflect that. But it also makes for compelling viewing, and the discipline both sides play with in terms of adhering to the game plan, and the work rate it requires, is commendable. Both sets of players were out on their feet after extra-time, and yet, many were still on the field nearly 40 minutes later, still signing autographs.

I felt Clare possessed the sharper cutting edge before last Sunday, and would find a way to get a goal or two to win. The relative ease with which Waterford contained that threat impressed me. Clare may have to win this with scores from further out the field, but I think they'll get enough of them to do it.

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