Tuesday 24 April 2018

Jamesie O'Connor: We're in desperate need of stirring battles to rescue mediocre season

The onus is on Galway to show that they can find an alternative way to get the job done if Joe Canning’s considerable threat is removed
The onus is on Galway to show that they can find an alternative way to get the job done if Joe Canning’s considerable threat is removed

Jamesie O'Connor

Galway and Waterford will make last four, and one game can excite us.

A year ago today in this column, I was talking up the quarter-finals as one of the best days in the hurling year. Teams with form and momentum from the qualifiers evenly matched up against the beaten provincial finalists desperate to get back on track. An attractive double header in front of a big crowd in Thurles; what more was there to look forward to?

Four turgid hours later, two potential crackers had morphed into a pair of mismatches, Limerick hammering Wexford before Tipp outclassed an equally disappointing Dublin. The only consolation was that up to that point, it had been a cracking season with excitement and entertainment aplenty.

Tipp had been involved in two thrillers with Limerick and Galway, who themselves had provided no end of drama when scraping past Laois and taking Kilkenny to a replay. The Munster final had gone down to the wire; Clare and Wexford had played out two epics, and there were a plethora of other good games. But it's not possible to come up with a comparable highlight reel in 2015, because it doesn't exist. Disappointment has followed disappointment, and with just five games left, it's going to take some finish to the season to rescue the hurling championship from utter mediocrity.

So while there should be a reluctance on my part to hype up today, I can't help myself. Hurling needs it, and I think we'll get at least one absorbing contest this afternoon.

The headline act features Cork and Galway, two sides with an axe to grind. It just so happens that it's not with each other. That gripe is with Tipperary, who await the winners in the semi-final. It's hard to know who wants Tipp more, because of the contrasting nature of the misery inflicted upon them last year.

Galway contrived to blow a match-wining position and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in the qualifiers; Cork were completely outplayed and bitterly disappointed at failing to turn up in the All-Ireland semi-final, and also had their wings clipped by Tipp in the league this spring. In such circumstances, it may well be the side that best resists the temptation to get ahead of themselves, and avenging last year, that actually gets a crack at Tipp in the semi-final in three weeks' time.

Whatever else, there is no excuse for Anthony Cunningham's side if they're tactically outwitted today, because they've had the opportunity to study this new-look Cork side, not once, but twice in recent weeks. Since the Waterford match, Cork have been completely remodelled. Save for Brian Lawton's emergence, the personnel is exactly the same. But the system is radically different, and road-tested against Wexford, it worked again to perfection a fortnight ago against Clare.

Two clean sheets are testament to it, and if that trend of not conceding goals continues, Cork have a chance against anybody. Key to the system is centre-back Mark Ellis, who drops back in front of his full-back line, with Daniel Kearney filling in and wing-forward Lawton dropping into midfield. I was at both of those games, and Ellis has given a clinic in how to play the sweeper role. Not only are his defensive instincts sound, but he possesses a nose for danger, with the result that Anthony Nash has hardly had a save to make.

Apart from being much sounder at the back, the changes Cork have made since the Waterford match have also reaped dividends at the other end of the field. Patrick Horgan has been able to exert a bigger influence in the open spaces on the wing, and Séamus Harnedy and Conor Lehane have been highly effective as a two-man full-forward line.

True, they failed to fashion a single goal opportunity themselves in the Clare match. But goals were never a hallmark of this Cork side anyway. And against Clare, while they scored 20 points, they also shot an incredible 20 wides, at least some of which can be attributed to the greasy conditions in Thurles on the night.

With the team Cork have named, they look certain to deploy the same tactics. They'd be crazy not to, especially with the threat Joe Canning presents on the edge of the square. Jimmy Barry-Murphy only has to reference the 2013 quarter-final, which Clare won comfortably when Pat Donnellan parked himself in front of Galway's marquee forward for the afternoon. It completely negated his influence on the game, and if Canning's threat is removed, the sense remains that Galway have yet to figure out an alternative way to get the job done.

The fact that Shane O'Neill is back in at corner-back, and Damien Cahalane is named on the wing, presumably to mark Galway's primary ball winner Jonathan Glynn, seems to indicate that Cork have a clear indication of the match-ups they want at the back, with the added security of Ellis patrolling and policing the 'D'.

All of which makes it intriguing in terms of what Galway's response is likely to be. In the circumstances, there's a strong case to be made for playing Glynn at No 14, and getting Canning out the field. I would start Galway's talisman at centre-forward, where he's likely to see more of the ball, and thus have a bigger impact on the game. It would also create a headache for Cork in terms of who picks him up, because with his size, strength and accuracy, he's not the easiest to match up with.

In addition, while Cahalane or Aidan Walsh might have the size and physique to toil away with Glynn on the wing where he's selected, I wouldn't want either of those two with him on the edge of the square. Remember the havoc he created on no less a player than Pádraic Maher in that qualifier tie with Tipp last year? It also means that Galway have the option of going long and direct, potentially bypassing Ellis. Furthermore, Glynn's distribution skills are underrated if he does win primary possession, so getting him on the ball may be the key Galway need to unlock Cork's system.

To restrict Clare to just 17 points has to give the Cork players a lot of confidence in what they're doing defensively. In addition, to come from the position they were in, two behind with 10 minutes left and score the last five points to win the match, is another huge positive. Their forwards have started to find form - and if Galway allow them the same opportunities Clare did, the Tribesmen's season will end this afternoon. Yet, despite all that, I sense there's something different about Galway in 2015. This is a big, physically imposing side that I always felt Clare would have had difficulty coping with. Cork are better equipped in that regard, but there is enough evidence from the four games Galway have played to indicate that they're getting back to the levels they reached in 2012.

Having both David Collins and Jason Flynn back fully fit strengthens their hand, and provided they show up with the war paint on, I can see them converting a couple of the goal chances they're bound to create, that Clare didn't take. Assuming they do, my gut instinct tells me that'll be enough to squeeze through.

The consensus seems to be that Waterford will have too much for Dublin in the opening game, but it's by no means the foregone conclusion many assume. There's a wealth of experience in that Dublin dressing room - National League finals, Leinster finals, All-Ireland quarter-finals and semi-finals - and they showed every bit of it, and no little resolve, to claw back the deficit they did against Limerick and make it through to today. At 1-8 to 0-3 down midway through the first half, I had written them off. But the manner of the win, the way they turned it around and the character they showed, goes a long way towards restoring the confidence and self-belief that was so badly shaken in the loss to Galway in Tullamore.

Liam Rushe, in particular, was a colossus when the hard balls needed to be won at the very end, and the management deserve a certain amount of credit for swallowing their pride and restoring him to his best position. No more than Cork, Dublin have absorbed the lessons from that defeat, and Waterford won't find it as easy to break them down because of it.

To an extent, the pressure is now off the Dubs. They've maintained their Division 1 status, reached a league semi-final that they should have won, and in getting to the last six, something arguably more fancied sides such as Clare and Limerick failed to do, they've ticked most of the boxes. That takes some of the pressure off. In addition, having capitulated so badly to Tipp at this stage 12 months ago, I can't see the Dubs not turning up and having a real go. If Danny Sutcliffe, Paul Ryan and Mark Schutte bring their shooting boots, the margin for error Waterford will have diminishes and we'll have a real contest.

A lot of talk during the week about Waterford seemed to centre on how they have to get more bodies forward, and set up less defensively in order to put more scores on the board. I'm not convinced they will, or should for that matter either. The system they have has served them well to date, and it took Tipp until the last quarter to finally shake them off. Admittedly, they'll need to better their 16-points Munster final total to go any further, but the calibre of the opposition, and the respect they had to show the Tipp attack, had a lot to do with how that game played out.

To my mind, they lost nothing in defeat. There was no capitulation, no surrender, and they competed to the final whistle. The fact that their under 21s were knocked out by Clare three days later will, I think, serve to galvanise rather than deflate them, especially given the number of youngsters on the senior panel. There's nothing else to play for now, and I think Derek McGrath will have them right for today.

Some of the Waterford players I had doubts about coming into the Munster final, particularly Barry Coughlan at full-back, answered those questions. When it comes down to it, I think they'll find the answers again today. Waterford and Galway to join Tipp and Kilkenny in the last four.

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