Winning is everything. Success this weekend guarantees a big day out and an All-Ireland quarter-final, writes PM O’Sullivan.
Hurling matches nudge and jostle each other, resetting expectations and implications even in advance of a result.
Clare and Limerick, up this weekend in a Munster semi-final, offer a nice case in point. A fortnight ago, Cork’s dramatic victory over Tipperary reset the board. Sunday’s winner will sense an augmented chance of becoming 2017’s Munster Champions.
Reasoning? Cork and Waterford joust in the other semi-final. If Cork progress, they reach the decider with a lot of gas gone from the tank, two battles surmounted. If Waterford progress, they will have survived an exacting encounter in all likelihood, leading to some version of the same dynamic.
Playing well two games in a row is one of hurling’s most difficult tricks. Perform really well one day and a team often ends up quite flat in the first half of their next day. Clare or Limerick, themselves progressed, would discern a scenario in which they lead at half-time and fend off a rally by Cork or Waterford after the break.
Not that Clare and Limerick are looking beyond this semi-final. The obvious remains devious. Only a win on June 4 sketches any prospect for July 9.
Local word says a ball-playing Clare front eight: Colm Galvin and David Reidy in midfield, Podge Collins, John Conlon and Tony Kelly at half forward, with Conor McGrath, Shane O’Donnell and Aron Shanagher at full forward.
Every team’s objective is best equilibrium in personnel. From its earliest decades, hurling experienced a tension between the basics of size and skill. No point in having an abundance of skilful candidates if they cannot win possession. No point in having an abundance of possession if there are no candidates to cut a groove on the scoreboard.
This dynamic changed during the 1950s, when Wexford made fetching an integral part of hurling’s skill set, much to traditionalists’ horror. But nothing succeeds like All-Ireland success and the Wexford way prevailed. Kilkenny took the hint and Tipperary, with their great team of the early to mid 1960s, cemented aerial ability as a central component in the most beautiful game.
Overhead strokeplay has long since gone the way of a pre-match shot of whiskey and woollen jerseys.
Back to the future in the 2010s and the tension persists. Can Collins, Conlon and Kelly garner sufficient puckout possession against Limerick’s half backs? You would wonder, which is one reason why this meeting sits up as a fascinating contest, as an audit on possession retention. Goalkeeper Andrew Fahy, striving for pinpoint deliveries, will be vital.
Limerick own doubts over wing back Diarmaid Byrnes’ fitness. Even with Dan Morrissey or Gavin O’Mahony as a replacement, Byrnes’ drive would be a significant loss. He relishes dirty ball.
There are likewise queries about the Limerick half forwards. Shane Dowling is not renowned for graft. Cian Lynch is gifted but far from a prototypical centre-forward, a position where clear decision making is crucial, a gift not yet in Lynch’s ken.
More again, Gearóid Hegarty’s absence lessens ball-winning endeavour in this sector. Hegarty and David Fitzgerald would have been quite a clash, 1950s like in its physical rawness.
This contest’s nub remains clear. Which set of half backs thrives best in transferring ball to midfielders and half forwards coming deep? Disrupt the supply chain and you disrupt the way the other team is arranged, cracking the glaze of their preparations.
Item: Tipperary’s forwards allowed Cork’s half backs too much dominance a fortnight ago. Tipperary’s backs paid the tariff, same as Kilkenny’s backs paid in last September’s All-Ireland final. There is no such thing as a free lunch if opposition backs and midfielders are a free bunch.
Besides, stakes have cranked from above and below alike. Loss this weekend pitches one county into the qualifiers, an arena that already includes Dublin and Tipperary and will shortly include Kilkenny or Wexford and Cork or Waterford.
Doom mongers, in this situation, could only get doomier. Best case scenario: the second round qualifiers as too many people for too few lifeboats. There will be blood in the water on managerial fronts.
Remember that Clare changed their set up last year, which intensifies pressure on the current players. Many observers, with sound reason, believed them hobbled by illogical systems throughout the last three seasons. Those facets are vamoosed, which equates to delivery time.
Rating Limerick at the moment, you would make them eighth best hurling team in the country. Were Clare not able to defeat this Limerick, there would be searching queries about their whole approach.
Winning, however it gets done, is everything. Wexford knew same in the 1950s. Lose this weekend and a Clare chorus starts calling for the injection of Bobby Duggan, Peter Duggan, Jason McCarthy, Cathal Malone and Jamie Shanahan into the front eight. Recipes for confusion typically lead to famine.
Winning is everything. Success this weekend guarantees a big day out and an All-Ireland quarter-final. Clare are favourites with the bookmakers and heavy favourites in public opinion. This encounter is crucial to their medium term future and maybe they need a win more.
Specifics do stack that bit higher for Banner hopes. Their defence looks somewhat more durable than its Limerick counterpart. Although Paul Browne is an underrated hurler, Clare are stronger in midfield. They also look a touch stronger on the graft scale at half -forward. Barring individual intervention of a high order, Barry Nash scoring two goals for Limerick or Aron Shanagher doing the same for Clare, those factors seem likeliest to be decisive.
While the latter are a rational choice for progress, could you tender massive conviction? People think they know a lot about Clare, because of that All Ireland win in 2013, when they electrified the summer. But do we know so much?
Too little is known about the current Clare squad until we see them in hard action. They could win this year’s All-Ireland and they could fade back into the pack, unable to establish the requisite equilibrium between possession and pace.
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