Defensive uncertainty could cost Clare dearly

ON Wednesday, Seánie McMahon, Liam Doyle and I sat down with John Fogarty, of this parish, in Dromoland Castle. We rolled back the good times, regaled ourselves with old stories and rekindled those magical flames which burned in our hearts throughout our Clare careers (the details of the conversation appear elsewhere on the Irish Examiner website today).

Defensive uncertainty could cost Clare dearly

I’m sure John could see the chemistry that still exists between the three of us. We were laughing at each other, just having the craic. The last time we spent time together was the night of my book launch in 2014. Someone took a photograph of us that evening in the Temple Gate hotel, which brilliantly captured the unique connection we had.

We had less hair and a lot more girth than during our playing days, but that photo meant so much to me that I’ve used it as the picture on my Twitter handle ever since.

Without saying it in a cocky way, but one of the reasons we were so good together as a half-back line was because we knew, and trusted each other so much, after so many battles together.

The line was first formed in 1995 and it wasn’t dismantled for another six seasons. Seánie stayed on until 2006, but myself and Doyler played our last championship match in 2000, before riding off into the sunset over the following years.

Throughout that glorious period for Clare, our defence was largely a symbol of that team’s defiance, primarily because it was so settled and the names were so identifiable. Brian Quinn came in for Mike O’Halloran in 1998, but Ger Loughnane and his management effectively only started seven defenders over a six-year period.

Our forward line was almost the complete opposite. Apart from Jamesie, it often resembled a carousel, with guys often off the team as much as they were on it. A lot of the current Clare forwards would have made that team — and made it better — but, and I mean this in the right way, very few, if any, of the current defenders would have got a look in.

I’m loath to make comparisons, but I’m just doing so to make a point. I know it’s a different time now. The game, and the demands are far more attritional, but when I look at the Clare defence for tomorrow, it concerns me that there has been so much instability. I’m not harking back for our days, when the world and its mother could name our back seven, but the consistency during the league has been abandoned, and it is worrying.

Our centre back has become our full-back. The guy who management invested all their faith in during the league at number three is the new centre-back. Conor Cleary played there last year, but he spent the whole spring conditioning himself — mentally as much as anything — for a totally different role.

I would be worried about the Clare full-back line, full stop. We know how dangerous the Cork full-forward line can be and I’m not sure if the Clare inside line can hold them, especially now with so little game time between them, and such little time to develop the telepathy and cohesion that cements all good full-back lines together.

On the other hand, this game last year — the Munster final — came down to both full-forward lines and the service, or lack of, in that match. If Clare’s inside forward line gets the supply of ball that it needs, and should have got last July, well then Clare have a right chance... because you wouldn’t be putting the house on the Cork full-back line either.

Whoever gets the greater platform around the middle will have control of the gearstick. Clare need big games out of Cleary, David Fitzgerald, Tony Kelly and Colm Galvin. Kelly and Galvin are two of Clare’s key shooters, especially from distance, but trench warfare is as much a priority as sniping duty for that pair tomorrow.

There was huge focus on the new Cork lads last year. They were brilliant. They gave a whole new attitude and splash of class to this Cork team, but matching, or exceeding those standards in Year Two will be a huge challenge for Mark Coleman, Darragh Fitzgibbon, Shane Kingston and Luke Meade.

Some of them struggled during the league. They have the class and the pace now to light up the summer again, but they’re no longer the unknown superkids anymore and teams — as Waterford showed in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final — are becoming far more aware of what they need to do to shut those guys down.

There is huge pressure on both teams, and managements, but that pressure is increased in the new format, given the importance of the first match, and the momentum it can potentially generate.

This is a very hard game to call. You couldn’t have any more than a fiver on the outcome, because nobody has any idea how both teams are going. If Kelly hits the form he showed in the league quarter-final, maybe Clare could swing it, but if Cork get a grip around the middle, Cork’s big men up front may get enough scores to shade it.

Cork is going to be electric tomorrow, but the Gaelic Grounds is going to be just as buzzed up on emotion and fervour. The Limerick people I’ve been talking to are confident, but they have their concerns too, and rightly so. A lot of the talk surrounding Tipperary for the last six weeks has focussed on James Barry at full-back, but Seamus Hickey isn’t a specialist full-back either, which is a concern for Limerick, especially with the firepower Tipp have in the full-forward line.

I also feel that Declan Hannon has to make a major statement from centre-back tomorrow. When I think back to Seánie Mac, he had the face and personality of an angel but the ruthless instincts of a devil. A mafia assassin, as Loughnane called him.

Does Declan Hannon have that ruthless edge in his game? He may not, but he needs to start laying down the law and patrolling that defence more like a sherriff than a deputy.

When he steps up, Hannon is an incredible player. If he is on a going-day tomorrow, he could beat Noel McGrath, dominate the match, and create the fulcrum which could lift Limerick to a famous victory.

Limerick seem to be in good shape. The only player they seem to be missing is Peter Casey, but there is plenty of experience in this squad now. I said recently that Limerick could win an All-Ireland by 2020, but they won’t get too many better chances than tomorrow to show that potential destination is imminent. There’s no point waiting until the middle of this summer, or even 2019, to make a statement. Make it now.

Limerick’s season doesn’t hinge on this match, but you still feel if they don’t win that they’ll be hard pressed to make the top three. That might seem outlandish, considering Tipp are probably the best team in Munster, and especially with three games still to come, but this has the potential to be a momentum-creator, or a momentum-killer for Limerick. I give them a great chance, but I still think Tipp’s forwards might accumulate a higher total.

I had a good chat with Bill O’Carroll and Fergal Whitely on Wednesday, when they came along to watch our Dublin league game with Kilmacud Crokes. They were very upbeat after last Sunday’s devastating defeat to Kilkenny. The squad went to the 40-foot on the southern tip of Dublin bay in Sandycove for their recovery session afterwards and the mood was reportedly very positive.

They certainly don’t fear going down to Wexford tomorrow, but you’d just wonder how much the Kilkenny match has taken out of them. Wexford were very flat against Clare in a challenge game 10 days ago, but I believe the work they’ve done in the lead in to this game has been savage. I expect them to be ready for whatever Dublin unleash.

The home crowd is bound to be a factor. I also think that this group are much more ambitious than they were last year, when they were still effectively finding their feet under Davy Fitz. Dublin are probably hoping, but Wexford are probably more focussed on doing and I’m sure they will get it done.

Kilkenny got out of jail last weekend, but I’d say they’re getting as much abuse down there this week as if they lost. Brian Cody’s mood was probably similar to what Loughnane’s was like anytime we ever drew a big game. He’d get us back in on the Monday or Tuesday night and absolutely savage us. We’d normally go ape then in the replay, and pull out a massive performance.

And I’d say it was much the same in Nowlan Park all week.

A wounded Kilkenny team coming out of the traps is always a dangerous animal, just like we were with Clare back in the day. Jeez, the chat on Wednesday really stoked the embers in our hearts again. God, you’d give anything to go back, just for 10 minutes, and fire ourselves (obviously in our 1995 or 1997 bodies) back into the middle of the mayhem again.

Because that was living in the fullest, and truest, form.

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