Tuesday 21 November 2017

Vincent Hogan: Banner get tentative vote to edge home this time, but don't expect Bolero

Davy Fitzgerald
Davy Fitzgerald
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

So we return with searchlights and klaxons to Thurles tomorrow in the faint hope that we might find evidence of functioning life - apart, of course, from goalkeepers having a siesta and sweepers checking their fingernails - somewhere inside either '45' line.

You'd think Clare and Waterford took hurling down a dark alley last weekend and did something unspeakable to it given the sanctimony rising in certain houses. The collective denial of space in Semple Stadium was met with broad dismay by those who believe this game should always be some kind of timbered enactment of Torvill and Dean's Bolero.

Even former Waterford great Ken McGrath took to Twitter on Sunday evening with the simple, scolding observation, "I have to say I'm glad I played hurling when I did".

How bad was it then? Well if you were there to dot down all those salchows and triple toe loops, it's fair to say you didn't use much ink. But Davy Fitzgerald's observation that we'd just been treated to "a man's game" held true too, both teams going after the League title with enough virility to belittle any suspicion they might have been conserving energy for June 5.

We might not be especially charmed by the spectacle of such heavy traffic gasping around a single, narrow corridor of grass, but we surely owe it to Clare and Waterford to acknowledge the physical selflessness of what they gave us too, the willingness to put bodies on the line; not simply at chosen moments, but always.

And, face it, the grind ultimately begat an epic, Conor McGrath rescuing Clare's hopes from under the Ryan Stand at the end of normal time and big Maurice doing likewise for Waterford nearly half an hour later from somewhere near the Devil's Bit.


Tactically, chances are we'll get much the same again tomorrow because what is there to gain for either in tossing the deeds of their house on the table now?

In any event, numerals on a scoreboard ought never be the sole criteria for measuring the greatness of a hurling game.

Remember the summer of '05? Two pulsating All-Ireland semi-finals, one (Galway-Kilkenny) throwing up nine goals and 36 points; the other (Cork-Clare) zero goals and 31. Which was the better game? In this writer's estimation, the latter.

There was still plenty of good stuff to harvest last weekend, not least Shane Bennett's ongoing march into the affections of Waterford supporters while still a teenager and the gloriously redemptive sight of Podge Collins back in harness, a Spitfire picking easy quarrels with heavy bombers.

Coming down the (extra-time) home straight, Clare's conditioning seemed to stand them in better stead, so many Waterford players going to ground with apparent cramp.

There was much grumbling too about Waterford's careless leakage of wides (19 in the first hour alone), but you try scoring from the roof of a bullet train with half a dozen wolverines in your face. That's pretty much how it must have felt for both teams last Sunday.

So who has the greater scope for improvement? Well that really depends on who is more inclined to loosen the tactical strait-jacket.

If Maurice starts, Waterford's attack will be strengthened instantly, and almost everybody Derek McGrath sent in off the bench last Sunday more than justified his call.

Bennett's growth along with that of Patrick Curran and the knowledge that Tom Devine will, even in the densest of smoke, most likely come in to sniff out a goal chance tomorrow, copperfastens a sense that the defending champions have more than a few layers now to their armoury.

The League has also offered a reminder that this modern game in front of us isn't the sole preserve of wraith-thin students whose only pressing obligation beyond the books is answering their county's call. 'Brick' Walsh and Kevin Moran have both had big tournaments in an ecosystem that cannot but be physically challenging.

But, if tomorrow comes down to puckout strategy, last Sunday's evidence suggests Clare might just be the clearer thinkers here. Pa Kelly's deliveries usually found their quarry (albeit Waterford didn't contest beyond a certain precinct) and, with Conor Ryan seemingly available again, Davy Fitz has increasingly impressive options in defence despite David McInerney's continued absence.

Colm Galvin was a revelation last time out and getting 90 minutes into Tony Kelly too will have felt like some kind of bonus prize. But the word is that John Conlon won't even make June 5 now with that ankle ligament damage suffered against Kilkenny and, without him, Clare just aren't quite as flexible as they'd maybe like to be.

Last weekend, Peter Duggan was largely deployed as the lone edge-of-square trouble-shooter to keep Barry Coughlan and Shane Fives honest and, while Duggan is formidable in the air, he's not quite armed with Conlon's self-sufficiency.


They could go with one of the Aarons, Cunningham or Shanagher in that role tomorrow, or they might revert to the more nimble threat of Shane O'Donnell.

Either way, the teams were level 11 times in all last Sunday and the likelihood is there'll be little more than a cigarette paper between them again.

Being truthful, we are guided by nothing more scientific than sheepish guesswork in delivering a verdict then.

The 2016 National League champions?

Em, Clare.

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