The first year I was manager of Clare, our opening championship match took place the week after the league final between Waterford and Galway.
That morning, we trained in Cusack Park, ripped into each other before all heading onto the Gaelic Grounds together to watch our opponents. Waterford were hopeless. Galway destroyed them. Coming out afterwards, everyone was telling us we’d bate the tar out of them the following week. By Tuesday night, I knew we were in trouble.
If I was more experienced in my role I’d have had the players behind on the beach in Spanish Point that afternoon, and completely dislocated from what went on in Limerick. Waterford just were not tuned in. It wasn’t a stunt they pulled to lull us into a false sense of security but seven days later when they came out of the traps like crazed wolves, Waterford devoured us.
We weren’t mentally ready for it. We all found it so difficult to get our heads around the situation whereas it suited Waterford perfectly to be coming in so deep under the radar. Today is different. Clare and Waterford are meeting in the league final. There is a five-week gap before they play championship again.
They will both be going all out to win but they will still be testing and probing each other in that search for an edge on June 5.
The mind games have already begun. Davy Fitzgerald has been telling everyone that Waterford are the best team in the country. Derek McGrath and Dan Shanahan have been saying Clare are the top dogs.
I wonder what Mr Cody is making of it all.
The real mind games for Sunday's clash though, will probably show up in how both managers use, or hold back, certain personnel. Derek knows he has a huge weapon in Austin Gleeson but he’s still trying to find out if Gleeson is better off in the frontline, or using him back with the rest of the defensive cavalry. He has experimented with Gleeson up front in a couple of games but whatever Derek has planned for his marquee talent on June 5, he certainly won’t be unveiling, or trying it out, in Thurles tomorrow.
I don’t expect Pauric Mahoney to start. If Tony Kelly starts, I doubt it will be in the position he will line out in five weeks time. The word in Clare is that John Conlon is out with a cast on the leg since that early knock in the semi-final: if he is, it’s a huge blow to Clare’s chances tomorrow.
On the other hand, it allows Davy the opportunity to keep Barry Coughlan guessing as to what might happen, and how to deal with Conlon, in June.
Waterford will still come with all guns blazing to win. Clare haven’t won a league since 1978 so don’t tell me that Davy isn’t anxious to end a 38-year famine. He has won nearly everything else as manager but keeping a couple of cards in the pack is the only way Davy and Derek can go for this while also trying to conceal their full hand ahead of their championship meeting.
The game could be wide open, a high scoring fiesta. In five weeks time, we could witness a dogfight, 0-14 to 0-13, or some scoreline completely unrelated to what might unfold today, or even maybe the other way round. The one thing I’m sure of is both games won’t be the same.
They both come in on the back of hot-scoring form. Clare hit 4-22 against Kilkenny. After having only scored one goal in six games, Waterford then bagged 3-23 against Limerick. Clare raced away from Kilkenny early on. Waterford sprinted past Limerick in the second half but neither team will allow the other to stride away from their reach tomorrow.
The last time Clare were at this stage, we were level with Kilkenny at half-time in the 2005 decider. We felt in a great position and then Kilkenny arrived out like a pack of Judge Dredds and wiped us out with goals.
I won a league title as a manager with the Dubs six years later but one of the few regrets I have from my playing days is not winning that medal. This bunch of Clare hurlers want to be remembered as the most decorated group of Clare players in history. Most of them have All-Irelands at senior and U21 and this would round off the set before they go searching for that elusive Munster title, and that second All-Ireland.
Waterford have their own motivations as they continue their hunt for history. They are two years solid now playing a system they have absolute faith in. They have got physically stronger. I couldn’t believe how big Tadgh de Burca and Gleeson have got. When Tom Devine came on against Limerick, he looked like a sprinter squeezed into a weight-lifter’s body.
The comparative momentum shifts have also been obvious. Waterford started like a train this league before slowing down and then steaming up again. Clare played with the handbrake on in Division 1B before releasing it against Limerick and then dropping the pedal against Kilkenny.
Waterford will still be a difficult wall to break down. Clare have more scoring potential. They have a greater ability to get goals but I still think this game hinges on Conlon’s availability. His goals, and the goal threat off him, has brought so much to Clare in this campaign, that think they will struggle to compensate for that loss.
I’ve also heard it might be Paul Flanagan who is out with the concussion but until I see that Clare team, I’m going to give a slight edge to Waterford. While both of the two boys would rather win both games, have no doubt it is June5 they’d take if only one was available.
Jeez, even the mind games are playing with my head. Do they sell Panadol tablets under the old Stand in Thurles?!
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