THERE is one issue that neither Clare nor Waterford can escape ahead of Sunday’s must-win Munster hurling clash — they are both short of natural goalscorers.
Clare’s Darach Honan is their most natural hit man but has been dogged by injuries — although he came through this year’s league unscathed, building his fitness with each outing.
When Clare won the U21 All-Ireland in 2009, Honan was a colossus. Sometimes he looks laid back so it will be interesting to see if Davy Fitzgerald can inspire him to the level he reached four years ago.
Whether he is better starting or coming off the bench is a big debate, but Clare will have to play him near the square given his abilities because, be it this game or the next, they will need to find the net to excel in the championship.
Waterford only scored three goals in their five league games and Déise fans will look to Jake Dillon and debutant Jamie Barron for their green flags.
Dillon is a proven goalscorer if chances come his way, but the challenge is for his team-mates to isolate him on Domhnall O’Donovan. The Clare corner-back attacks the ball at pace and is an accomplished sweeping defender. His forte is making interceptions, but that aggressiveness also makes him vulnerable when isolated and forwards run directly at him.
Dillon will have to take him on as much as possible. Last year in the corresponding fixture, Waterford bagged two goals courtesy of Banner mistakes, errors which cost Clare the match.
Seamus Prendergast continues to be the main ball-winner from puck-outs and general play for the Déise. He did well at centre-forward in the league against the Banner and he was very influential in their narrow championship win over them last season. He is a traditional ball-winning centre-forward and when he goes well he provides the platform for his forwards.
Prendergast’s value to his team lies not only on the scoresheet, although he has notched up match-winning scores in the past, but in his direct running and excellent distribution.
His battle with Clare’s centre half-back Pat Donnellan will be interesting. Donnellan is strong under the ball and his priority will be to protect Clare’s central defensive channel. He seldom left his post in the centre — 45m to 50m from his goal — in the league and provided good cover for his inside defence.
Waterford could gain an advantage if keeper Ian O’Regan can pinpoint his puck-outs down the middle, with Prendergast coming quickly into midfield to gain possession. Donnellan will be faced with the choice of following Prendergast or staying back in his position.
Clare like to keep their defensive system as a unit. Using that tactic it is more important for Donnellan to hold the middle, cutting out any second phase low deliveries to the attack, rather than following his marker out the field on puck-outs. That responsibility will fall to the Banner midfield and half-forwards.
Centre backs win most of the possession hit into their sector as it is easier facing the ball and psychologically it would be huge for Clare if Donnellan can negate Prendergast’s influence by providing a firm foundation for half-back dominance.
That is what makes the tactical battle intriguing. As the game unfolds there will be a lot of players tracking back and bodies around midfield. It may not be pretty but it will be interesting.
Clare play Tony Kelly as a centre half-forward in name only as he is very far removed from a traditional ball-winning, break creating No 11. Kelly moves deep into central midfield and to either wing, intelligently supporting his colleagues. He makes the extra man and then attacks from deep, but his value to the team is not his distribution but his scoring threat.
He is pacy, competitive, highly skilful and is capable of taking scores off either side on the run. Ghosting in behind the defence he pops up in space at the end of co-ordinated moves.
For Waterford to win they need to shut him down and allow ‘Brick’ Walsh to do what he does best — dominate the centre playing his own game while quickly supporting his full-back line if danger threatens.
Waterford manager Michael Ryan would be unwise to hand Walsh a man-marking role. Kelly’s elusive running makes him hard to pin down and going man to man would open gaps in the centre of defence.
Ryan has a choice. He could deploy a different man-marker on Kelly who would stick to him like glue but he’d need to be as quick as Kelly and to have the required stamina for such a role.
On the other hand, he could flood midfield with bodies denying him space in which to operate. If I was him I’d do both.
Winning this tactical battle will be key.
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