Saturday 17 March 2018

Jamesie O'Connor: Waterford won't make the same mistakes again while Clare should squeeze past Galway

Tony Kelly is among a number of Clare players capable of exposing Galway’s limitations at the back. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Tony Kelly is among a number of Clare players capable of exposing Galway’s limitations at the back. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Jamesie O'Connor

I managed a night away in Cork last week for a couple of rounds of golf. We played twice and the fourball was competitive, seriously competitive. The teams never change. It all came down to the last stroke on the final green, with no money changing hands, primarily because I missed two very makeable putts on both days on the last hole.

Seánie McMahon refused to concede a single putt over the two rounds (he'd really need to cop himself on) so the tone was set from the off, and it seemed to be one pressure putt after another for the match and the bragging rights that go with it. In fairness, when you might have to wait 12 months for the rematch, it tends to add that bit of extra spice. Pressure can do funny things to people, and it was great to see my former team-mates bearing down and refusing to back down when the heat was being applied.

There's pressure on a different scale in Thurles today, where Clare, Galway and Waterford have to shoulder the burden of their own and their supporters' expectations to keep their seasons alive. In stark contrast, Wexford are in bonus territory. They, of the four teams today, are the only ones that can lose and not feel an overwhelming sense of underachievement. No-one coming out of Croke Park at the end of May would have given tuppence for their chances of being in the last six, given how poorly they played against Dublin in the Leinster quarter-final. I don't think any of the Wexford players themselves believed it to be a remote possibility.

But something has clicked, and while the quality of the opposition they have beaten can be questioned, Wexford have had the answers when the questions have been asked. They have also found something within themselves - call it resilience, mental toughness, or just sheer bloody-mindedness - because they have had to overcome a fair degree of adversity to advance this far. They lost players to injury, had to overcome the atrocious decision not to recognise Mark Fanning's perfectly legitimate goal at a key stage in the Offaly match, and showed a lot of courage to really grind it out in the last 10 minutes against Cork, when the game looked to be slipping away.

A team with lesser character would have capitulated in the circumstances, with Cork's goal to snatch the lead coming as late as it did. But they didn't and people forget that had David Dunne taken either of the excellent goal opportunities he got on the end of in that second half, Cork would have been dead and buried long before.

The return from injury of Lee Chin has been critically important in transforming Wexford's fortunes. The physical presence, ball-winning ability and work rate he brings to the middle third was sorely missed against the Dubs.

Since his return for the last two matches, he has been the man to step up when they needed someone to win the hard ball at a crucial stage. His presence has also allowed for Conor McDonald to be left inside on the edge of the square, and with Liam óg McGovern becoming more adept at translating the possession he wins into scores on the board, and young Dunne growing in confidence with every outing, Wexford have assembled a half decent forward line.

The problem this afternoon will be breaking down a Waterford defence that, stung from the systems failure of the Munster final, is unlikely to be in a charitable mood. Waterford too are better in the air, and have more natural ball winners than Cork, so getting their hands on enough primary possession to chisel out the required amount of scores is likely to be a problem for Wexford, especially if they too go with a sweeper as they did against the Rebels. In addition, if the Déise required any further motivation after the train-wreck that was the Munster final, it's the painful memory of being dumped out of the championship as recently as two years ago by today's opponents.

Back then, if anything it was Wexford rather than Waterford who looked to be on the cusp of a new era. But it's the latter who kicked on and are the ones harbouring All-Ireland ambitions despite the setback of a fortnight ago. They can take a big step in re-establishing those credentials this afternoon, not so much with the win they're heavily favoured to get, but more the manner of it.

Defensively, I have no doubt they'll be a lot sounder and they won't make the same elementary errors that Tipperary so ruthlessly punished. But it's what they can bring to the table up front that interests me today. That's where the key questions remain, and with Kilkenny looming large Derek McGrath surely has to be more adventurous and aggressive in attack.

There were far too many occasions in the Munster final when they just didn't seem to have the bodies up front to trouble the Tipp defence. The 13 points they scored, even allowing for the frees and chances they missed backs up that charge. Especially with the breeze in the opening half, Maurice Shanahan played too far out the field, and with no obvious targetman to aim at or any evidence of a goal threat, it played right into Tipp's hands.

I would put Shanahan on the edge of the square, and try to get young Patrick Curran and Shane Bennett playing off him. Curran especially has genuine class, but they have to do a better job of getting the ball in his hand in positions where he can do something with it.

Wexford won't fear their neighbours, and Waterford's confidence has to be brittle after the events of a fortnight ago. But I'm expecting to see a response. The under 21s' second-half demolition of Clare last Wednesday week was exactly the fillip they needed, and while Wexford have progressed, they still have a distance to travel to get to the level their neighbours are at. Waterford will win and should do so with something to spare.

Trying to call the second game is a far trickier proposition. If there's pressure on Waterford, it pales into comparison with what the Clare and Galway teams must be feeling.

Read more: Liberation or doom the stark choice as we reach the business end

Given he had taken them to two All-Ireland finals, the stance the Galway players took in forcing Anthony Cunningham's departure was always going to hand a stick to their critics to beat them with, and no one has wielded it with more abandon than my former Clare manager, Ger Loughnane. If some of his incendiary remarks weren't appreciated in Galway, they haven't gone down particularly well in Clare either.

The reality, though, is that when push came to shove in the Leinster final, Galway were found wanting. Five points clear coming up to half-time, when they should have been driving on, criminally careless play meant a couple of cheap scores were coughed up, and it was back to a one-score game at the interval. Did they all then bust a gut in that second half when Kilkenny were coming at them?

Was the required leadership shown by the senior players when the game was still very much there to be won? Unpalatable as it may seem, the answers to those questions are no and no, and if Galway are to go anywhere, those are the issues that are going to have to be addressed.

Equally concerning is the lack of quality in defence. Galway just don't defend well enough to win an All-Ireland, and Clare will certainly feel they have the players to go after them at the back. That's why it's imperative that Micheál Donoghue has his homework done in getting his match-ups and tactics right.

One important aspect of that surely starts with pushing up on the Clare puck-out, and particularly on sweeper Cian Dillon. Experienced in the role, Dillon is not just capable of breaking tackles, and keeping possession, but is also a good distributor coming out with the ball. Galway need to take him away as the short puck-out option, something Limerick naively failed to do, and either force Clare to go long, or at least short to someone less experienced or competent with the ball in hand.

I hope Clare have a plan if that scenario arises, because unlike the corresponding fixture in 2013, when Clare stopped Galway by stopping Joe Canning, Galway's attack is now stocked with more weaponry.

If Clare believe they can expose the Galway backs, Galway are every bit as confident they can get after the Clare defence at the other end of the field. Canning will surely be fired up, but it could be any one of Cathal Mannion, Jason Flynn, Conor Cooney or Conor Whelan who does the damage in a game where goals could make the difference. Clare's record in that department remains a major concern. In the three serious matches with Waterford and the game against Limerick, Clare have managed a solitary green flag. More perplexing is the fact they haven't looked like scoring goals against the better teams, and unless they rediscover that cutting edge, it's hard to see them advancing.

There are plenty of other reasons why Clare shouldn't win. Conor McGrath doesn't start, Podge Collins' football commitments in Salthill yesterday have to impact negatively on his effectiveness, and that's not to mention the unsettling effect on the players of Davy's health concerns and likely absence from the sideline.

Parking all that, when Clare got into their rhythm against Limerick, they proved how hard they can be to play against. McGrath on the bench is a massive ace in reserve, and Clare have more than enough players up front - Tony Kelly, Shane O'Donnell, John Conlon, Aron Shanagher - capable of exposing Galway's limitations at the back.

Who wins? It comes back to pressure. Which side will cope best with it, and who will hold their nerve when the game is on the line in the last 15 minutes. I say Clare.

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