Having Dónal Óg Cusack on board is a big advantage, especially with Clare’s need to shut down Anthony Nash’s puckouts, particularly to Conor Lehane, writes Anthony Daly.
I was eight when I attended my first Munster final in 1978. I went with my brother Michael and brother-in-law, Colman. I remember the air being heavy with hope and expectation. I knew Clare were coming to win. It was a really poor game but my outstanding memory of the day was John Horgan, and his mop of blonde hair, breaking Clare hearts with his long-range frees.
The devastation amongst the Clare throngs on the way out was palpable afterwards. I remember passing the legendary ‘Pecker’ Dunne for the first time, playing the Banjo on the Railway Bridge in Thurles. The ‘Pecker’, the Lord have mercy on him, was belting out one of his old classics, probably ‘Sullivan’s John’. He was originally from Wexford but set up house in Clare. The Clare crowd always gave the ‘Pecker’ a few bob but he seemed to be well in with all counties.
For years afterwards, big days in Thurles followed a usual pattern in my mind; big crowds, warm days, a few tunes from the ‘Pecker’, serial big-day disappointment, often at the hands of Cork. We eventually turned that trend on its head in the 1990s. When I was a Clare player, we gave Cork a trimming in Thurles in the 1998 Munster semi-final but when we returned there for the following year’s Munster final, we were trying to beat Cork in a provincial final for the first time under Ger Loughnane.
I don’t remember Loughnane stoking up the fire as much as he had before the 1997 final against Tipperary, even though Loughnane had suffered terribly as a player at the hands of Cork. We had never beaten Tipp in a Munster final. Clare had beaten Cork in the 1914 and 1932 finals — ok, long long before our time — but we had beaten Cork four times in the previous six years. We were going for three in a row for the first time but a youthful (scarily similar) Cork hung in there and got the result on the day.
What killed me about 1999 was that I felt we should have beaten Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final, which would have given us another shot at Cork in the final. We were that sort of team, and Loughnane would have had us in that frame of mind, that Cork would have been in for it, especially on that wet day. Loughnane would have had us like savages.
For me, that was an end of an era for us as a team. When I was manager of Clare in 2005, we had Cork by the throat in that year’s All-Ireland semi-final but let it slip. It still haunts me to this day but Cork were a superior force at the time. They were a better team. Afterwards Cork slipped. They only got close again to the big-time, once, in 2013, but we got it.
Now that the teams are meeting in a Munster final again for the first time since 1999, it’s a little weird. Clare expected to be in the final. Back in May, nobody believed Cork would be there to meet them. In that sense, this is going to be a novel final, especially with both counties in the minor and senior finals.
By all accounts, the whole of Cork is going. Clare supporters have struggled to get tickets (my phone hasn’t stopped all week but there are no tickets around the county, the board can answer that one). Most pundits fancy Cork but I think Clare have a great chance. It reminds me a little of 1995 and 1997, when we played two poor semi-finals, and played our best stuff in the final. In 1998 and 1999, we hurled two massive semi-finals and were below par in the drawn final in 1998, and the 1999 game against Cork.
There is very little talk about Clare but you can imagine how pumped Tony Kelly, Conor McGrath, Colm Galvin, and these guys are to light the place up. Clare won’t want Cork building up massive momentum so if they can quell the crowd early, they will give themselves a great platform to build from.
Having Dónal Óg Cusack on board is a big advantage, especially with Clare’s need to shut down Anthony Nash’s puckouts, particularly to Conor Lehane. I think you have to man-mark Lehane with a midfielder, and let a half-forward pick up that midfielder, especially on the Cork puckout. I didn’t understand what Waterford’s set-up was but Clare will look to be very structured in that area. Podge Collins will come out anyway but if you look at this management’s history, they have normally played with a packed middle third, with fast ball up to a two-and-a-half inside attack; Conor McGrath and Aaron Shanagher sitting in and Shane O’Donnell coming off them at pace.
That inside line are capable of taking out this Cork full-back line (they will need to) but Cork will feel they can rack up a big score at the other end too. Amongst both sets of supporters, there are concerns about their defence. How tight are they? Everyone is expecting a shoot-out but I don’t think Clare will particularly want that type of game. Clare won a shootout in 2013 but things have changed a fair bit since then. Clare need Tony and Podge going better. They need a big improvement in their half-back line, whether that’s making changes in personnel or fellas pulling up their socks. The word is that Oisín O’Brien will come in as a man-marker on Lehane, with Conor Cleary sitting deep. Peter Duggan is also rumoured to start up front after some recent impressive training ground form. Maybe the big Clooney man will be the go-to guy on the opposite wing to John Conlon in a sort of ‘twin towers’ approach.
Clare need to find something. Their form has been patchy. Cork’s performance levels have been brilliant. Everything points to Cork but, as a Clare man, we all feel there’s a huge performance in our boys. If Clare come with their best, and Cork come with their best, I feel Clare will win by a couple of points.
In Thurles this evening, the moment of truth arrives for Waterford. This team has made huge progress under Derek McGrath but if they are to make a real stand, this has to be it. There can be no more talk of rebuilding, or patience to let these young players fully develop, Waterford know they will never get a better opportunity to beat Kilkenny.
Whatever Derek decides to do tactically, it’s time for these players to step up. Derek can only come up with so many words of inspiration so the players should be manly and bring huge and absolute intensity, and see if Kilkenny still have the desire to stay going.
If Waterford can hit the form of last year’s two All-Ireland semi-finals, they certainly will be good enough but can they reach those heights again now? Kilkenny won’t lie down but this is a golden opportunity for Waterford to drive them over the cliff-edge. It might finally be Waterford’s time to get it done.
In the curtain-raiser this evening, I expect Tipperary to win but I was impressed by Dublin against Laois. The defence played really well. Eamonn Dillon was excellent. So was David Treacy in the second half. Tipp is a big step up from Laois but where are Tipp at either?
Tipp will have to be on their guard. If they are complacent and are already thinking about a quarter-final, they could be vulnerable. Still, that fear should be blown away after last week’s insipid display against Westmeath. Tipp should get the job done but nothing would shock me in this one.
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