Today's All-Ireland SHC Quarter-Finals
Clare v Galway, Cork v Kilkenny
Clare v Galway, Semple Stadium, 4.0
When, if ever, this generation of Clare hurlers achieves its potential, and what the full extent of that potential might be, are questions currently hovering above the team and the management.
Calls for patience, and waving birth certs as a defence against impatience, do not lessen the need for a big statement here. They will face a tornado, a team bent on atonement for the Leinster final, full of pique. Clare are still searching for a performance that would persuade the naysayers they are All-Ireland material.
Winning enough primary possession has been a problem and the loss of John Conlon in the Munster semi-final against Cork underlined the lack of reach and power in the air. On the ground, they are an exciting and gifted bunch of players, provided they are allowed stay true to the instincts that have got them to where they are now. They were a success at underage level because they could hurl and they were allowed the full expression of those gifts. Any attempt to restrict that is an abomination.
If they lose today playing in the right spirit, giving it a right go and throwing caution to the wind, then they will leave a promising legacy for next year. There is the chance a team of such natural hurlers could flower and that Galway's poor form is not reversible. But Galway can make a plausible case for mitigation, if not pardon, for their abject form. Today they run out of excuses.
It is backs to the wall and they will believe they have enough hurling and power to win.
Their level of motivation, if it doesn't strangle them, should be ahead of Clare's simply because they have more to lose. Simply because of the circumstances they find themselves in. It is not that they want to win more than Clare; it is that they have to win more than Clare.
Six changes illustrates the depth of self-loathing wrought by their Leinster final capitulation. The midfield has been ransacked but all over the field there is upheaval, an uprising from within. Four of the five subs who came on against Dublin start; all five who went off will begin this one on the bench. They are still tinkering with key positions and Shane Kavanagh is expected to play at full-back, with Johnny Coen given the task of closing down the Clare playmaker Tony Kelly. Some players, too, are fortunate to have avoided the cull.
Clare, if they get a good start and build up early confidence, can hit over 20 points. They create a dizzy amount of scoring chances but can miss a dizzy amount as well and there is a tendency to overcomplicate. Are they getting the maximum out of themselves? Not to date but they're in the final eight, in Thurles, facing a county they won't fear; it's not a bad place to be. They can expect a siege from the off and it will be interesting to see how they handle the intensity. Galway to win by three or four.
Galway: C Callanan; K Hynes, F Moore, J Coen; S Kavanagh, D Collins, J Grealish; A Harte, A Smith; D Burke, C Cooney, J Glynn; D Hayes, J Canning, N Burke.
Clare: Team not announced.
Odds: Galway 8/11; Draw 9/1; Clare 11/8.
Cork v Kilkenny, Semple Stadium, 2.0
The return of Henry Shefflin to the starting line-up is perhaps marginally ahead of the expected timeline but his presence is an enormous factor in the equation. Any team facing Kilkenny without Shefflin is bound to walk that bit taller. He did not look match-fit against Waterford but the game-time will be invaluable and the two weeks since will have brought on his fitness.
It was here in Thurles at the same stage against Limerick a year ago that he kept manners on the Treaty men when they were at their most boisterous in the first half. That day he played side of the square and displayed the width of his repertoire, having started out as a corner man in 1999. He is listed corner today but Kilkenny have a reputation for placing their heavy weaponry in areas where they perceive opposing teams' weaknesses. He could spend some time at full and Kilkenny will still strive to strike early and decisively, though the trend this year has been more long haul where they have to sweat for their victories.
The scarcity of goals in Kilkenny's championship has been the most notable variant from previous campaigns, running at a sixth of last year's ratio, and Shefflin enhances the goal threat as a creator and finisher. Cillian Buckley's selection is also an interesting one, with Lester Ryan losing out, but the team is evolving as the season is and nothing can be considered the finished article. Buckley must have made his claims in training which still figures large in the deliberations of the management team.
Shefflin's first start is further indication of Kilkenny's gradual return to rude health and the constantly upward direction of their mood. It's still a tall order to win an All-Ireland but they will get stronger as the challenges grow. Cork will at least expect to ask some searching questions and be emboldened by Waterford's showing in the last phase of the qualifiers, a team they share similarities with, both characterised by lively and young attackers, with Cork's arguably feistier. The return of Pat Horgan is also timely. Cork must use their pace and intelligence to stretch a rearguard that might have four men of mature vintage but glories in a battle and will delight in ball that hangs in the air. Cork, at least, can be expected to try to play to their strengths.
Their Munster final ended in abysmal anti-climax with the second half fadeout and the fact that they will never know how much Horgan's absence contributed. In the first half they carried through the form shown against Clare and they will draw something from the spell they had in the second where they applied serious pressure on Limerick and brought the match back to two points.
They cannot engage Kilkenny physically but they'll know that this is not the Kilkenny of old and it is not the Kilkenny that strikes the fear it once did. Kilkenny could take time, again, to find the winning groove but they'll find it.
Cork: A Nash; S O'Neill, S McDonnell, C O'Sullivan; T Kenny, C Joyce, W Egan; L McLoughlin, D Kearney; C Lehane, S Harnedy, P Cronin; L O'Farrell, P Horgan, J Coughlan.
Kilkenny: E Murphy; P Murphy, JJ Delaney, J Tyrrell; T Walsh, B Hogan, K Joyce; C Buckley, M Fennelly; C Fennelly, R Power, E Larkin; W Walsh, R Hogan, H Shefflin.
Odds: Kilkenny 1/3; Draw 12/1; Cork 11/4