Sunday 17 December 2017

Jamesie O'Connor: Fear of being remembered for one-in-ten should drive Clare on

Conor McGrath returns from injury to take his place in a potent-looking Clare forward line.
Conor McGrath returns from injury to take his place in a potent-looking Clare forward line.

Jamesie O'Connor

Whether it's with club or county, there are some games in a player's career that you simply have to win. Games where losing is unthinkable, where it's not an option.

When I look back through my career, a few obvious ones stand out. I still recall being almost sick with nerves and the fear of losing before a minor final with the club against éire Óg in 1990. The thought of our closest neighbours and biggest rivals sowing it into us for the next 12 months was enough to drive me and most of my team-mates to empty ourselves to ensure we got the job done.

The Munster final versus Limerick in 1995, after we'd failed to turn up and been hammered in the previous two provincial deciders. The semi-final against Cork in 1998. Defending All-Ireland champions, yet people writing us off after the Rebels had dished out a trimming to us in the league semi-final.

The Munster final replay against Waterford in 1998, the wrath and fury of Ger Loughnane in the build-up, and how we'd allowed ourselves to be bullied the week before. The county semi-final against a Clarecastle side we'd failed to defeat in four previous attempts, with our county, Munster and All-Ireland club titles on the line in 1999.

On each of those occasions, there was a definite edge and a heightened sense of urgency in the dressing room. The stakes were higher. I know the fear of losing and the consequences of it were a big part of what drove me on. Other players mightn't have seen it that way, and I'm not sure what take the sports psychologists would have on it as a motivator, but they were matches that I couldn't contemplate losing.

For Tony Kelly, Conor McGrath, Podge Collins, Colm Galvin and the rest of the Clare players who were part of the 2013 All-Ireland win, today is such a day. This is a game Clare simply cannot afford to lose. The stats don't lie: one win in the Munster Championship in the nine years since Clare were last in the final in 2008.

With the pedigree they have, for those players to have just a solitary victory in Munster simply isn't good enough. There are members of the panel who have yet to taste success in Munster, many of whom would have grown up either watching or listening to stories from their parents or elders about the epic battles with Tipp, Cork and Limerick in the cauldrons that were Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Semple Stadium and the Gaelic Grounds in the 1970s, '90s and early 2000s. It surely grates on the players. It has to.

Tipp and Cork restored our faith in the Munster Championship two weeks ago and we have Cork and Waterford to look forward to. So what we don't need, is for Clare and Limerick to bore us to death today as they attempted to do in their qualifier meeting last July.

I watched that game again last week and it was turgid stuff. Sweepers at both ends of the field, a clogged middle third and a mistake-ridden match. Limerick failed to score in the second quarter, going nearly 19 minutes without registering a single white flag. Clare shot 19 wides and themselves in the foot to keep Limerick in a match they had no right to be in. No goals, no real excitement or drama; Clare finally winning by 0-19 to 0-15.

In mitigation, there is a context. I get that there was massive pressure on both teams and both managers - Davy Fitz and TJ Ryan - as well. It was all about the result. But the performance and the nature of the match meant the relatively small band of Clare supporters who travelled derived very little joy or comfort from the victory.

With new brooms sweeping clean in both camps, I hope we don't get a repeat and I don't think we will. The new Clare management dispensed with the sweeper from day one and I don't see John Kiely playing one either. Both sides have players - Cian Lynch, Graeme Mulcahy, Tony Kelly and Shane O'Donnell - who are capable of lighting it up, but who were rendered peripheral last year. They will surely have more scope today.

With a full hand to pick from, the Clare management have put their own stamp on the team, and are going with their guys. There are no starting positions for Cian Dillon or Brendan Bugler in the Clare rearguard, and looking at the team Gerry O'Connor and Donal Moloney have picked, Limerick will feel they can get after the Clare half-back line. Those guys have to prove themselves, and it's a worry because we saw in Thurles a fortnight ago what happens when your half-backs spend the game on the back foot. From there up, however, the team looks strong and all but picks itself. A mobile midfield pairing, likely to be heavily supplemented by Kelly and Podge, and a potent-looking forward line, especially with Conor McGrath back to full health having missed the entire league.

The Limerick management are also giving youth its head. People speak highly of John Kiely and with Paul Kinnerk - who knows these Clare players inside out - Joe O'Connor and Alan Cunningham in the backroom team, Limerick will be fit, well prepared and organised. Maybe the fact the five Cork newcomers played so well against Tipp went some way towards making their minds up. Playing in Division 1B, I'm not quite sure they got the same exposure during the league as their Cork counterparts, and I'm not certain either that they're all necessarily ready for the step-up in class today will bring.

Limerick will certainly miss the injured Diarmuid Byrnes - with three points from wing-back last July, he more than any other Limerick player took the fight to Clare. Gearóid Hegarty too, assuming he doesn't play, is another loss. With two rookies manning the central positions, and Cian Lynch coming into the match with a broken finger that may not be fully healed, there are also question marks over how good this Limerick forward line actually is.

Limerick are underdogs and there's no great hype or expectation in the county. The consensus seems to be that Clare are a lot further down the road developmentally, which means Limerick have nothing to lose. That makes them dangerous, and the pressure is on Clare. But the more pressure there is, the better, because that's when big players step up and deliver. Time for the Clare boys to do so today. Because they can't afford to lose, they won't lose. Clare to win.

While it's still six days away, it's hard not to get excited about the hottest ticket in the country next weekend. That's Saturday night at Innovate Park in Wexford, where the home side take on a Kilkenny team still smarting from the trimming dished out to them in the league quarter-final. Already a sell-out, fasten your seatbelts because the word is Kilkenny don't care at the moment if they never win another match as long as they win this one.

Wexford won't be backing down, and the improvements Davy has wrought means the chasm between the sides evident two years ago has narrowed dramatically. Nonetheless, if the Cats have decided to declare war on Wexford, I can only see one winner.

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