Monday 19 November 2018

Jamesie O'Connor: Derek McGrath has been left with no option but to roll dice

Peter Duggan of Clare scores from the penalty spot last Sunday, a pivotal score which set Clare up for victory over Waterford. Photo: Sportsfile
Peter Duggan of Clare scores from the penalty spot last Sunday, a pivotal score which set Clare up for victory over Waterford. Photo: Sportsfile

Jamesie O'Connor

Clare loyalties aside, the primary reason I went to Ennis last Sunday to see my own county play Waterford, rather than to Thurles or Salthill, was the fact that with the other two big games on live television, it was the only way to get to see all three matches.

I half suspected the Cork-Tipp match would unfold into the epic it became in the second half, and with Kilkenny travelling to Galway, there was always going to be cordite in the air in Salthill too, even if it proved to be significantly less dramatic. Nonetheless, the events likely to have the biggest ramifications for the rest of the Championship occurred in Ennis.

Anyone I had spoken to in Waterford had been downbeat about their chances in the build-up, especially without Pauric Mahony, Austin Gleeson and Shane Bennett in attack. Clare had shown enough in the loss to Cork to justify favouritism, especially with home advantage, but I still saw it as no more than a 50-50 game. It finished being a lot more comfortable for the home side than I envisaged, but the game and possibly Waterford's season, were transformed in a two-minute spell midway through the first half.

At that point, they led 1-4 to 0-3. Tadhg de Burca, who had opened Waterford's account with a super long-range score, was at his imperious best in the sweeper role and Clare weren't finding it easy to break them down. Then, with 15 minutes gone, de Burca went down in obvious distress with what we now know was a broken collarbone.

A minute later, Kevin Moran ghosted into a great position behind the Clare full-back line. When Tom Devine gave the pass, he had a glorious opportunity to put his side seven clear and silence the home crowd. Credit to Donal Tuohy in the Clare goal for pulling off the save, but Moran should have buried it.

From there, Clare went up the field, John Conlan was taken down for a penalty that Peter Duggan put away, and that six-point swing completely altered the match. With Clare's tails up and the now vocal home crowd behind them, there was only one team in it from there until half-time.

With Brick Walsh, Jamie Barron and Moran - the All-Star trio that drove this team forward last year - all struggling to make an impact, Waterford were lucky to get to the break only five down. Brick didn't reappear for the second half and neither did Noel Connors, who hobbled off after taking a knee into the back on the stroke of half-time. When Darragh Fives withdrawn with a calf problem three minutes into the half, it looked like it couldn't get any worse.

But it did. A moment of madness from Kevin Moran means he misses this afternoon's game. And, compounding matters, full-back Barry Coughlan picked up a serious hand injury - three broken bones - and Maurice Shanahan tweaked his groin. Considering they finished with just five of the side that started last September's All-Ireland final on the field, Waterford did well to limit the deficit to nine points.

Irrespective of the talent at your disposal, no county - the Dublin footballers included - have the resources to overcome that level of attrition.

The dilemma now facing Derek McGrath, is this: does he gamble on the fitness of Gleeson, Mahony, Connors, Shanahan and some of the other injured players this afternoon, and run the risk of setting them back further and missing the last two games? All bar Shanahan are named to start, and if that's the case, he's rolling the dice, and going with the strongest 15 he has available.

The alternative - to accept this afternoon might be a bridge too far, keep anyone with injury doubts in reserve, and throw everything at the last two matches against Limerick and Cork, isn't a particularly palatable option either. If results elsewhere go their way, four points could secure Waterford the third spot. But there are so many permutations possible, and with teams taking points off each other, it's still a long shot. The other factor is that scoring difference could also come into play.

It's Hobson's choice. With the firepower Tipp have, and the Deise missing their captain, full-back, centre-back, first and second-choice sweepers and potentially their best man marker, anything less than a Herculean effort and they could undergo a real shelling, and all but mathematically eliminate themselves this afternoon, even if they win the last two games.

Not many would trade places with Derek McGrath right now. He has to go all-in with whatever chips he has left. The deck will have to be shuffled - Brick to centre-back for example, but there is still enough talent in the team to be competitive. The likes of Patrick Curran, Mikey Kearney and DJ Foran, who have done it at minor and under 21 level, will need to step up. Victory however, looks beyond them.

For Tipp on the other hand, their season has turned 180 degrees from where it stood at half-time last weekend. Nine points down, and lucky not to be further behind, they looked done and dusted. It took tremendous character to retrieve the situation, but Cork will rue some of the wides they had early on, which could have put the game out of reach for the Premier.

Circumstances have been kind to Michael Ryan's side. Waterford are so depleted, it's impossible to see anything other than a Tipperary win. Provided his players aren't thinking that way, the real question appears to be how big the final winning margin is likely to be.

On that score, did Clare - as some in the press box thought - miss an opportunity last Sunday not to capitalise on Waterford's misfortunes, and hammer home the advantage further on the scoreboard?

Will Waterford set up ultra-defensively today to limit the damage? Tipp have been in two energy-sapping matches, but the attack looked more cohesive as the second half went on and, if they rediscover the rhythm of two years ago, it's ominous for everybody.

Either way, Tipp will still have to beat Clare to guarantee progress. They can afford to be below par today and still win. That won't be the case against the Banner next week.

After the promise of the opening two rounds against Galway and Kilkenny, it all came apart at the seams for Offaly last Saturday night. Three games in successive weeks against that calibre of opposition proved a bridge too far. They couldn't afford to be as flat as they were and Conor McDonald's goal inside the first minute was the worst possible start for them. It set the tone for the evening and Wexford were ruthless in ensuring the game was over before half-time.

How disheartened must Kevin Martin have been, not just with the result, but also to see his side finish with just 12 players on the field? The two straight reds late on looked harsh, but the consequences will be felt today. An already threadbare panel is shorn of two starters, while Shane Dooley and Joe Bergin will have to carry a heavier load up front in Oisin Kelly's absence.

At home, coming off the bye, and with Conal Keaney back, I don't see Dublin slipping up. The hiding Offaly doled out to the Dubs on the opening night of the League won't have been forgotten and Pat Gilroy's side have shown in the first two rounds that they can mix it with the big guns. Dublin to win and head to Salthill next Saturday with their chances of progress still alive.

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