PM O'SULLIVAN: Clare look a ballwinner light

Waterford should win but might not. Their main difficulty is their convex tradition against Kilkenny in championship encounters, writes PM O’Sullivan.

Here we go, hard about the real stuff. Hurling has two months and eight teams left. Two counties exit this weekend. Majority opinion says Dublin and Kilkenny. Heavily so, former case; marginally so, latter case.

That text from a friend mentioned in last week’s column proved prescient. Following the initial qualifier draw, he broached Tipperary making an All-Ireland semi-final via defeating Westmeath, Dublin, and Wexford. The Premier crew are short odds for sticking to this route.

Dublin face two main difficulties. First, their convex tradition against Tipperary in championship encounters. Second, absentees who would definitely strengthen their hand. Items: Peter Kelly, Darragh O’Connell, Mark Schutte, Danny Sutcliffe.

Not to come over all Lady Bracknell but you would wonder whether ‘Ernest’ is Ger Cunningham’s middle name, so unfortunate has he been in mislaying hurlers.

Had Dublin their full complement, I would fancy an upset. The Tipperary camp faces the considerable difficulty of being in turmoil. True, they have endured an unsettling time, some of the carry-on scurrilous and not of their own making, but the only reality that matters out on the pitch is performance.

Tipperary’s performance against Westmeath last weekend was their worst showing in recent memory. They are vulnerable.

Vulnerable to Dublin? That call remains difficult when you see Liam Rushe shoved to centre-forward in a last roll of front six dice. Starting his reign, Cunningham tried this move in spring 2015, when it did not fly. Can a day in July be sufficiently different?

Tipp might explode with frustration and win really well, a bit like Kilkenny did in their second-round qualifier with Galway in 2004. Or matters in their camp might be so bad that even an enervated Dublin side catches them. The current body language of several Tipp hurlers indicates they would like shut of 2017 sooner rather than later.

Even the first scenario is seamed with danger. A powerful energy-sapping performance would leave them assailable in the All-Ireland quarter-final, same as Kilkenny were in their drawn meeting with Clare in 2004.

Kilkenny in 2017 has been a fraying rope. This season’s chances were dismissed as early as mid February, following a 13-point NHL defeat to Clare. Nothing witnessed since contradicts this verdict, launched by Liam Sheedy and battened upon by Ger Loughnane and others.

That scrappy and scratchy performance against Limerick definitely changed no minds. There was admirable courage in Kilkenny’s willingness but scarce little cohesiveness in their hurling. Besides, Limerick were all but brutal.

Tomorrow evening, Waterford should win but might not. The arc of their year (if not quite of their summer) is above the Kilkenny arc. They should also draw upon the fuel of desperation, in that failure to overcome an outfit seemingly running on fumes would engender a medium term hang up about ever trumping this jersey.

Waterford’s main difficulty? Their convex tradition against Kilkenny in championship encounters. The Déise should have vaulted this opposition in 2013 and in last August’s drawn All-Ireland semi-final.

The clash of tactics will fascinate. Kilkenny deployed Walter Walsh more or less as a third midfielder against Limerick. I could not parse this emphasis. Whatever this gambit’s ultimate merits, Walsh is not a tidy enough hurler for the role. Kevin Kelly would be a likelier candidate.

There was more to parse. Having pushed up seven on seven on their own puckout against Wexford, denying those opponents a spare defender, Kilkenny chose to allow Limerick a spare defender in the same scenario. Why?

Urging a centre forward to play on the drift is one matter. Fair enough and away you go, as Cork are urging Conor Lehane. But having defenders wallop ball after ball up the middle to the opposing centre back, as the drifting centre forward stands idly by, is a long remove from joined-up hurling.

Waterford should win but might not. Victory over Limerick tilted Brian Cody closer to 2017’s optimum arrangement. Then Kilkenny’s U21 display on Wednesday evening became a right tonic (and possibly threw Richie Leahy into tomorrow’s mix).

Notably, Waterford scored but one goal against Offaly last weekend. Tipperary plundered four against Offaly in April’s NHL quarter-final. Derek McGrath has never set up in pursuit of green flags. Lose this eminently winnable qualifier tie and said deficiency will be cocked on a roost in their dressing room.

Clare and Cork enter Sunday’s Munster final in almost an inverse scenario. Cork started the same team for their last two outings. Unless Bill Cooper and Conor Lehane lose out to injury, the same 15 will likely appear. Kieran Kingston owns a fair idea of his prime selection.

Clare are still searching for best bearings. They field a stylish quartet in Podge Collins, Colm Galvin, Tony Kelly, and David Reidy that is at least one ballplayer too full. Balancing their half forward line means inserting another ballwinner. A big call beckons.

Cork set opponents a genuine tactical conundrum by deploying Conor Lehane as a pilgrim centre forward. Last day out, Waterford’s Pauric Mahony notched the same tally from play, four points, but there was no comparison in influence exerted.

Clare must stifle Lehane without their centre back moving house on the Cork puckout. Dropping a half forward to mark him, with a corner forward likewise dropping out, is the neatest option. How accomplished are Stephen McDonnell and Colm Spillane as distributors?

This Munster final’s crux is nothing new under hurling’s sun. If the Clare forwards get stuck into the Cork backs in nice, old-fashioned style, the outsiders acquire a much stronger chance. How good are the Cork full-back line, squeezed on the ball, and how good are the Cork forwards, squeezed off the ball?

They might well be good enough, even in this context. If they are, Cork will go hard on winning the All-Ireland. But Clare must at least pose the questions Tipperary and Waterford spurned.

The real stuff arrives the same way as orange juice flows from oranges.


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