She will be sitting inside Semple Stadium, indifferent and exact. These All-Ireland quarter-finals dictate who joins Kilkenny and Tipperary, now strong favourites to see September, in the last four. There is hope rather than expectation that a meeting of these counties can be prevented. So far this season, their main challengers have either stood still or fallen back.
Sunday provides the chance for some team to make a statement, gaining credibility and momentum in equal measure. Does anyone genuinely believe Wexford can go all the way? Hard to think so. But Clare, Galway, and Waterford become hot contenders if they can spark their campaign. Fail to do so and you must look to the tumbrel, sooner rather than later.
Waterford and Wexford are first up. Most important context? That the former stand as 1/5 favourites with the bookmakers. 1/6 is available in some places. This status counts as unusual when their team got taken apart by Tipperary in the Munster Final, 21 points and counting.
Consider this gloss for a minute. Cold commercial assessment puts Waterford in that much ascendancy and still they will set up in all likelihood as if the odds were the other way round. Simply as macro logic, simply as a response to the particular challenge Waterford face, I reckon this so called system has to be queried.
Waterford were 1/3 favourites to win an U21 Munster semi final versus Clare in July 2015. They went defensive, set up with a sweeper and lost by two points. This July, Waterford’s U21s met the same opposition in another Munster semi-final. They went offensive, hurled with a pleasingly brusque directness and won by 18 points.
Relevant? You would have to say so. If Derek McGrath and colleagues lose in two days’ time, their thought processes as senior management will not be tenable. I would love to see Waterford win an All-Ireland (and they have the players to get thereabouts) but flim flam is no substitute for analysis. You should not play as underdogs when your bite is far more formidable than your bark.
Wexford made the last six via stirring victory over Cork, the first against said opposition in 60 years. Even so, Wexford’s hurling in 2016 has been like a March day and weather, all sorts of everything. Nine weeks ago, they got walloped by Dublin to the tune of 13 points. Sad to say, the biggest washout on a torrential evening in Croke Park ended up the Wexford performance. But they are alive, having beaten Offaly and Cork in the qualifiers.
That outing against Dublin evinced serious flaws at the back. With midfielders and forwards running at them, Wexford dispense goal opportunities. Defenders do not work for each other, tracking runners and closing off space.
Item: midfielder Darragh O’Connell’s goal for Dublin, where he was blithely allowed open prairie.
That outing against Cork evinced some defensive resilience. Full back Matthew O’Hanlon lapped up high ball delivered around the square, an element that led Cork into oblique and ultimately blunt hurling. This juxtaposition surely makes plain how best to discommode Wexford.
This Sunday, Waterford need to be on their mettle. Wexford will be recalling 2014, when they beat these opponents in an All-Ireland quarter-final, much as the whole county recalls 1798. Waterford have to test the Wexford back eight by getting into one on one struggles, where a Déise man moving past his marker carves minatory channels. But how do you achieve this aim if you deploy only two or three men up front?
Psychology is ever relevant in sight of Madame Guillotine. Wexford fancy this occasion far more than their standing with bookmakers might indicate. Do Waterford fancy it? Meaning, do they really want, deep down, to take on Kilkenny?
All in all, Waterford should progress if they hurl with bite. My nag would be a recent pre-Munster Final interview with Austin Gleeson, their young force of nature. Having spoken well, he was asked by his interlocutor, Denis Walsh, whether his side had truly believed in 2015 they could beat Tipperary and Kilkenny. To his credit, Gleeson paused for what Walsh noted was the only time in their conversation.
How much can conviction about Kilkenny have expanded in the wake of that 21 point reverse to Tipperary? This factor is worth keeping in mind.
Clare and Galway complete the afternoon’s bill. The bookmakers adjudge the former marginal favourites at 10/11. Lines of form could demur. Galway kept right with Kilkenny in the Leinster final for 60 minutes or so. You could argue that this spell of championship hurling reached a pitch somewhat in advance of anything seen thus far from Clare this summer.
They went down by eight points to Waterford, who subsequently ran into Tipperary’s propellers. On the other side in Munster, Tipp had been largely imperious in taking down Cork and Limerick.
There is likewise Clare’s patchy and unconvincing performance against Limerick in the qualifiers, when they scraped home by four points. Most instructive aspect of that encounter? The second half inroads achieved by Limerick when they pushed up on the opposition puckout. Once all of Clare’s outlets were marked, Andrew Fahy was forced to go long, with Limerick in general and Diarmaid Byrnes in particular making bales of headway.
Galway manager Micheál Donoghue is long enough on the road to draw the requisite moral. He must whet daggers on the Clare puckout. If his team can get them expending more energy than normal in this arena, Galway will be well positioned in the last 10 minutes. Hot days leave energy at a premium.
Yes, Clare might just come out and catch fire. We simply do not know where they are at. Any sort of a performance could emerge from a camp where curious dynamics are the day’s order.
Looking at 2016 so far, hurling people are certainly hankering to see a spark in Tom Semple’s Field swell into conflagration.
Clare might just come out and catch fire. We simply do not know where they are at