Jamesie O'Connor: Clare's quality can get the job done in game they can't afford to lose
There was a collective sigh of relief in Clare midweek, when news filtered through that home field advantage had been secured for today's Division 1A relegation play-off. Winning that toss, which means it's Cusack, rather than Parnell, Park this afternoon, was a huge bonus for the Banner management and players. But it guarantees nothing. And any Clare supporter that was in Ennis for their earlier meeting three weeks ago knows just how tricky this assignment has the potential to be.
To be fair, Clare's form has mirrored almost everyone else's in the division outside of Tipp. Good one week, mediocre the next. Things got off to a poor start on the opening night, when they were way off the pace and well beaten by Cork. Eight days later, they were excellent at home to Kilkenny, when the management demanded and got a response from the players. They never looked like beating Tipp in Thurles, but there were positives, especially on the couple of occasions, early in the first half and midway through the second, when the All-Ireland champions threatened to pull away and win the game easily. Both times, Clare showed the resilience to fight their way back into it, and ensured the match remained a contest.
Third in the table, and with two home games to come, I felt they were as well-placed as anyone to finish in the top four. However, what on paper should have been a routine win over an understrength Dublin very nearly went pear-shaped. A below-par performance meant frayed nerves heading into stoppage time, and it took a couple of late scores to eke out a two-point win where they all but fell over the finishing line. The fact that corner-back Seadhna Morey was their second top scorer from play tells its own story, on a day when four of their starting forwards failed to contribute anything to the scoreboard.
They didn't make it easy for themselves last weekend either. Down 1-3 to no score against Waterford inside the opening six minutes, Clare produced what was arguably their best 40 minutes' hurling of the entire campaign to put themselves in a match-winning position.
Podge Collins was back to his best at centre forward. The movement up front was excellent, and there was a real crispness and accuracy in what Clare were trying to do. The only downside was that midway through the second half, I turned to a colleague and wondered aloud had I got it wrong, or were Clare hurling Waterford off the field and still only three points clear? They ended up paying the price for failing to capitalise on that dominance. Derek McGrath's side hung tough, got the crucial goal they needed, and deserve huge credit for grinding out the victory in a game that Clare really should have won.
Figuring out if it was a lapse in concentration, or just fatigue versus physically stronger opposition, is likely to have perplexed the Clare management this week. But it won't have been lost on the travelling Dubs that Clare have shown themselves to be vulnerable, and they'll believe that this is a winnable game.
After the opening-night demolition to Tipp, I think most people assumed that Dublin were going down. But since then, the response has not been that of a side who believe their fate is sealed. Winning in Cork a week later was massive, and they've been competitive in all the other games. Some of the criticisms levelled at Ger Cunningham from outside the camp are belied by the attitude the players have shown.
I'm not party to the state of morale in the Dublin dressing room, but I thought the spirit that Brian Cody repeatedly references was really good that day in Ennis. The manager has made mistakes, but there's no evidence from the performances on the field that he's lost the players, or that they've stopped playing for him. And with the Cuala contingent coming back, his hand is strengthened immeasurably. Some have expressed surprise that they weren't started last weekend, but I thought it a sensible decision. Dublin were always going to be in the relegation play-off. Today is the day they're really needed, and I think they'll have appreciated the extra week off. Looking at it coldly, it was actually in their interests not to beat Kilkenny last Sunday. Because the Cats had only two home games, if you crunched the numbers, it would have meant a trip to Nowlan Park today - the last place anyone would want to go with survival on the line.
With Cian O'Callaghan and Paul Schutte available, a Dublin defence that was already starting to knit together looks even stronger. Liam Rushe has provided real leadership at the heart of it and Eoghan O'Donnell has emerged as a genuinely top-class player in the full-back line. The issue, as ever, will be whether they can mine enough scores at the other end of the field to get the job done.
The worry is that they won't. David Treacy and Mark Schutte's return will help, but the younger players aren't quite there yet, and I don't see enough of a cutting edge to expose whatever shortcomings Clare may have at the back.
Put simply, this is a game Clare can't afford to lose. The Kilkenny match in round two had the same feel to it, and the Clare management went all in. You could see it in Donal Moloney's body language on the sideline. With the stakes higher today, Clare will surely bring the same levels of aggression and intensity. Dublin might match it, but Clare have enough quality on the field to get the job done. Home advantage to tell. Clare to win.
Sunday Indo Sport