Sport Hurling

Saturday 25 November 2017

Clare's hunger game can see them survive this time

But Déise ball-winners will be hard to overcome, says Jamesie O'Connor

It's understandable that the European Championships, Ireland's tour to New Zealand and golf's second Major have dominated the week's sports coverage. With the first of the Munster and Leinster hurling semi-finals both on today, it's been about as low-key a build-up as I can remember to what's a huge weekend in the hurling year.

Not that the players will mind. From their perspective, it has been perfect, because it has allowed them to go about their business quietly. The drawback is that while the presence of the Kildare footballers on the card in Portlaoise should artificially swell the attendance there, the lack of any great publicity means there aren't likely to be any more than a paltry 15,000 souls in Thurles.

Davy Fitzgerald's Clare take on Waterford, the county he managed for the last four seasons, in what should be an absorbing contest. It mightn't have done anything for the gate, but the dignified silence maintained by both sets of management was understandable. Davy had four relatively successful years in Waterford and plenty of respect I'm sure for most of the officials and players he's trying to overcome today. They'll be motivated enough without their former boss saying or doing anything to give them a further stick to beat him with.

Credit too to the Waterford backroom and players for playing down his involvement with Clare. Love him or loathe him, they know he gave the job his all, so better to focus on the match itself and do their talking on the field.

That said, I'm sure the gloves will be off today. Knowing how fired up he's likely to be, and with an equally wired Ken McGrath patrolling the Déise sideline, sparks could fly. So, from a Banner perspective, it's important the Clare manager keeps his cool.

To date, Clare supporters would have to be happy with the progress made. The players have put in a massive effort, as evidenced by their fitness and conditioning which played no small part in getting them back into Division 1. Eight points down five minutes into the second half of their play-off with Limerick, Clare reeled their opponents in and the manner of the win, as much as the victory itself, was a huge boost.

Defensively, the frailties that allowed teams to open them up at will last year appear to have been addressed, and Waterford are likely to find it harder to break Clare down than they did in 2010.

At midfield, Pat Donnellan and Nicky O'Connell have formed a dynamic partnership, and up front Clare have an inside trio who, if they get enough of the ball, have the capability to do significant damage. If there are doubts, it centres on the Clare half-forward line and whether or not they can win enough possession in the key middle third. With the ball winners Waterford have in this sector, Clare will put their faith in the running possession-type game that Davy has introduced.

To be fair, it suits a lot of the Clare players. However, if we get the rain that's predicted, it will hardly be conducive to the short passing and short puckouts central to that style. Furthermore, it's no secret that this is the way Clare are likely to play, so there's no doubt Waterford have put a lot of thought into how to stop it. When Kilkenny applied the squeeze in the league semi-final, putting real pressure on the player in possession, Clare struggled, had to go long with their puckouts and couldn't get their best scoring forwards, particularly Conor McGrath, on the ball. Were that to happen today, the Clare players will have to show a lot of character to dig out a result.

While a lot of the Clare team are now into their second or third seasons, they've yet to win a championship game, and don't have anything like the same experience as their opponents.

Admittedly, the injuries to Pádraic Mahony and Noel Connors, as well as the loss of Shane O'Sullivan, weaken Waterford, but even with four debutants, it's still a decent looking side. Liam Lawlor and Brick Walsh anchor the defence, and with Kevin Moran, Stephen Molumphy, Seamus Prendergast and Maurice Shanahan, Clare will earn it to get a foothold in the middle third.

Though named on the wing, Eoin Kelly may well start at centre-forward, and while he may not be the player he was in his prime, he's capable of punishing Clare if they don't get tight on him. The same applies to John Mullane, and no one will know more about the need to curb the influence of this duo than their ex-manager.

Were Darach Honan available as an option off the bench, Clare would have someone really capable of turning the game. However, he has only just returned from injury and his readiness is questionable. Yet Clare do have a couple of really good young players who have the ability to make a telling contribution. Starved of success, they also have a hunger that Waterford may just struggle to match. That may be enough. Clare get the nod, but only very, very tentatively.

Four years into Galway's Leinster championship experiment, it's hard to credit that they've made it to just one final in that time. However, with Kilkenny and Dublin in the opposite side of the draw and set to lock horns next Saturday, there's a perfect opportunity to improve that record today.

Yet, the Tribesmen hold no fear for Offaly. Galway were lucky to get out of Croke Park with a draw two years ago and hadn't a whole lot to spare in the replay either. With so many new and unproven names on the Galway team, Ollie Baker will have Offaly in their faces from the off, and I'm sure Galway would prefer Croke Park to the tight confines of Portlaoise.

Obviously the score posted by Westmeath a fortnight ago will have raised a few eyebrows also. James Skehill is back between the sticks, but with Kevin Hynes again selected out of position at full-back, Offaly will feel there are goals to be got. As a result, Joe Bergin will surely do a stint on the edge of the square, and Offaly do have enough stickmen up front to post a reasonable tally.

From a Galway perspective, beating Offaly begins with stopping their chief scoring threat

Shane Dooley, and in Fergal Moore they have someone equipped to do that job. Wexford made the mistake of leaving a young debutant on Dooley, and the goal he pilfered just before half-time was pivotal in turning that game in Offaly's favour.

That said, it was a far from impressive performance, and an improvement will be required. Nine points up with 20 minutes to go and the wind at their backs, they somehow let Wexford back in and were hanging on at the finish. Galway may have question marks defensively, but in attack they have more potency than Wexford.

By all accounts, Galway are beginning to motor, and have a lot of strength and athleticism. I'm still not convinced about them at the back, but provided they don't leak goals, Joe Canning and co will have too much firepower.

Finally, what a game next Saturday's Dublin-Kilkenny clash promises to be. I watched the Dubs maul Laois in Tullamore a fortnight ago and while they learned nothing, they looked in great shape physically.

With Conal Keaney, Stephen Hiney and Tomás Brady all back, the return to form of David Treacy and emergence of Danny Sutcliffe, Anthony Daly has a stronger hand than at any time in his four-year reign. With Michael Fennelly out and doubts over others, the Dubs will feel they have an opportunity to blow the championship open.

It's been a long, long time since Kilkenny's appetite for the battle has been found wanting, yet surely at some point the desire has to wane. However, the ruthlessly efficient dismantling of Cork in the league final seemed to indicate otherwise. With Dublin coming to wage war, that stomach for the fight will be fully tested. On the assumption that Kilkenny will meet fire with fire, their greater craft may make the difference

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