PM O'SULLIVAN: Clare and Wexford may find themselves all at sea

Four go down to the Lee, as a Cork band of the 1980s was not called.

Misnomer or not, this sliver sums up the weekend. The All-Ireland quarter-finals are upon us and we are off to Cork. Hurling is all shook up.

Or is it? If Tipperary overcome Clare and Waterford overcome Wexford, outcomes flagged by the bookmakers, three of the same counties that made the previous two seasons’ last four return. Is Cork as newcomer much of a triumph for hurling’s sans-culottes?

Scoff at your peril. Hurling needs every available injection of energy. The verve of the new Munster champions is a development all the more welcome for being so unexpected. Nothing surprises like a surprise.

Five Go Down To The Sea? was the name of that band and their best known track ended up ‘There’s A Fish On Top Of Shandon (Swears He’s Elvis)’.

Does that sliver not capture the tone in which Cork’s All-Ireland chances were being discussed three months ago?

No nay never no more… Correct bookmakers will mean a draw to establish who draws Rebel fire in the semi-finals. Tipperary must itch for this opportunity, given the bouleversement experienced seven weeks ago against those opponents. First the All-Ireland champions must negotiate Clare’s challenge.

Here is one summary of tomorrow’s encounter: Are the Clare backs better than the Cork backs? Cork, even with 1-26 conceded, were held to have stymied Tipperary’s attack in last May’s Munster quarter-final. Clare conceded 1-25 to Cork during a Munster final in which two of its members had been substituted by the 43rd minute. Into the bargain, Colm Galvin sat for long stretches as a seventh defender.

These runes weaken Banner chances. This assessment deepens in light of David McInerney’s fitness, which is dubious at best. While full-backs capable of marking an in-form Séamus Callanan are scarcer than were George Washington’s teeth, a fit McInerney would be a plausible candidate.

Can Cian Dillon take on this job? Again, the odds are against. Clare might likewise be a corner-back short to mark John McGrath and John O’Dwyer. Séadna Morey fits the bill. Who else?

Taken off against Westmeath, Callanan bolted back into form against Dublin, notching 3-4 from play. Like most forwards, he is a confidence hurler, with this graph once more ascendant. Callanan’s vision and stickwork last Saturday week for the pass that set up John McGrath’s second goal? Sublime.

Then consider Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher’s pace and movement at centre-forward against Conor Cleary, who is no speedster. The Clare backs require a level of improvement not anticipatable.

What case for an upset? The Tipperary backs. Three men were dropped from the defence sent out against Cork: Cathal Barrett, Séamus Kennedy and John O’Keeffe. Changing half your backline during the championship is a rare move. Retaining the All-Ireland doing so is yet rarer.

For efficient performance, backlines need to be hurling together on a consistent basis. Only this level of familiarity engenders the decision making necessary in hairline situations that hinge on goal chances. Those situations determine most results.

Clare do possess a potent full-forward line. But can they muster the sort of dominant half-back line that acts as a quarter-master for attacking prowess? Not on available evidence. Cork’s current half-back line is carrying out that quarter-master role in lethal degree.

Still, if Tipperary trip up, the likely cause will be goals accruing from tangles between Tomás Hamill, their new full-back, and James Barry, their demoted full-back. Even an attenuated Dublin side squandered goal chances.

Clare need to rewire their approach all over the field. A friend from Clondegad texted after the Munster final, furious about his county’s overkill around Anthony Nash’s puckouts: “If Davy [Fitzgerald] had used (and persisted with) that tactic last year we would have gone to town on him. But in Dónal Óg [Cusack] we kind of have diet Davy. We focused on their strengths without playing to our own.”

Tomorrow afternoon, Clare will not require ever decreasing circles of sophistication. Clare require old-fashioned gumption and a desire to spin the wheel, hoping it lands on the quadrant marked ‘Tipp’s defensive frailties’.

‘Elephants for Fun and Profit’ is another Five Go Down To The Sea? track. Clare might take a hint.

Here is one summary of Sunday’s encounter: Can the Waterford forwards expose patent weaknesses in the Wexford full-back line? This question should be straightforward. The modes in which Waterford operate leave it opaque. Full-forward lines are not high on manager Derek McGrath’s priorities.

This Sunday is a must-win outing for his charges. Although not playing as well in 2017 as in 2016, Waterford could still grow into a bigger horizon. Nerving out their qualifier meeting with Kilkenny, a contest they had to win twice, surely delivered an immense boost to their sense of themselves, for 2017 and beyond.

Now, though, is the hour. Now is especially the hour when Cork, perceived as Munster’s fifth best team, became its best team. Negotiating the province can only get harder for the remainder of this decade.

Davy Fitzgerald will instance to his Wexford charges how difficult Waterford found shaking off the Kilkenny terrier. He will say Wexford achieved the task in more convincing fashion. Fitzgerald will arrive eyeing Barry Coughlan’s deficiencies at full-back and Noel Connors’ sloughing pace at corner-back.

Whether flaying such pressure points is best achieved with five forwards remains moot. Here is a crux, one refuseniks about sweeper-centred hurling find a paradox. Waterford should win, because they possess a better depth of hurlers, but might not win, because they do not set up for full exploitation of opposition weaknesses.

Five Go Down To The Sea? rounded off The Glee Club

(1984) with ‘What Happened Your Leg?’ Barring performances of unforeseeable excellence, I expect this offering to be the soundtrack for Clare and Wexford supporters as they brave the mosh pit that will be post-match traffic.

Clare need to rewire their approach all over the field


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