What a week to be playing in an All-Ireland U21 final. The buzz surrounding the game has never been louder, interest never greater and here the next generation have the opportunity to build on the marvellous senior spectacle we witnessed last Sunday at Croke Park.
If the hurlers from Wexford and Clare were looking for role models this week, they didn’t have far too look.
Is there a Bubbles O’Dwyer or Richie Hogan among the 30 young men to march behind the band this evening? For sure, these are the players they will strive to emulate in Thurles.
They have a lot to live up to, given last Sunday’s fare. Are they up to the task? Yes.
Tonight promises so much, and I believe we will be treated to another cliffhanger. Will we get 54 scores and just nine wides? Probably not, then again let us be reasonable in our demands.
From the point of view of a spectacle, the two correct teams have advanced to the final. Clare and Wexford will bring large travelling contingents to Semple Stadium, a crowd in excess of 25,000 is expected.
The talent on both sides is obvious, but a subplot runs through this game. It was Wexford, featuring many of their U21 mainstays, that ended Clare’s reign as All-Ireland senior champions. Branded virtual no-hopers in every quarter, the Model County showed scant regard for the form book when showing Clare the exit door after an enthralling 160 minutes of hurling. Several of the Clare hurlers, the likes of Tony Kelly, Colm Galvin, Jack Browne, Bobby Duggan and Seadna Morey, are seeking revenge as a result.
For Jack Guiney, Conor McDonald and Liam Ryan, there is a strong determination to prove the result of July 12 was no flash in the pan.
It is incredible that Clare are even contemplating three in a row. There was a time when Clare struggled to reach the Munster decider, let alone win it. Clare have emerged from Munster four times in the last six years. A remarkable achievement. This evening, as they have done all year, Kelly, Galvin, Morey and Browne will lead the charge. Galvin is the most important member of the quartet, the player who consistently brings his senior form onto the U21 stage. Colm Galvin is the man who makes this Clare team tick.
For Wexford, their band of leaders — McDonald, Guiney and Ryan — have already been singled out for big things. McDonald is in line for young hurler of the year. The pressure resting on his shoulders is immense. If there is one pitfall of playing senior hurling at a young age, it is that you are expected to rule with an iron fist when lining out at U21. Unfortunately, hurling is not so simple. Will the pressure prove too much for McDonald? No, but the Clare full-back line might.
Wexford, to be fair, aren’t defined by the above mentioned trio and it would be foolish to suggest it is they who are responsible for bringing the county within 60 minutes of All-Ireland glory.
Kevin Foley and Rhys Clarke are two very capable corner-forwards, Aidan Nolan and Conor Devitt form a solid midfield partnership, while Shane O’Gorman anchors the defence from centre-back.
The battles will be many, those to impact on the result include Tony Kelly/Shane O’Gorman, Liam Ryan/Aaron Cunningham and Jack Guiney/Jamie Shanahan.
Wexford’s two outstanding assets which they must use to derail Clare is their aerial prowess and physicality. Put simply, they are bigger and better in the air than their opponents. The Wexford rearguard are in for a hectic hour, for each one of Clare’s starting six forwards are match-winners. Allow just one to hit full stride and it is game over. This will be a close affair, a humdinger. In the end though, I believe Clare will prevail. Important too is that at least one All-Ireland title is returned to the Banner.
To the competition as a whole, I’d urge top-brass to force Galway and Antrim into Leinster and tweak the format to see the two provincial champions (Munster and Leinster) meeting in the final.
If that can’t be agreed upon, experiment with the open draw for a year or two. Change is required.
Shane O’Donnell operated on the edge of the square in the Munster final, with Aaron Cunningham handed the number 14 shirt in the Munster and All-Ireland semi-final final victories. Cunningham has tallied 5-10, while O’Donnell’s goal-scoring talent cannot be questioned. Liam Ryan enjoyed an excellent debut campaign for the Wexford seniors at corner-back, the county’s most influential defender en-route to this evening’s U21 decider. Whether it is O’Donnell or Cunningham, the job is a sizeable one. Clare’s style is most direct so Ryan can expect a busy 60 minutes. Unless he is willing to gamble and play from the front, either of the above mentioned pair will run riot. Crucial too for Ryan will be the support of his corner-backs. Parting note — not one full-back line has thus far managed to curtail the influence of O’Donnell, Cunningham and David Reidy.
Hardly surprising we are zoning in on the role of the respective custodians. Clare have rattled the net nine times in four championship games, conceding just four. Wexford, meanwhile, have been breached only once this summer, emerging from Leinster without conceding. At the other end they have hit six goals. Model goalkeeper Oliver O’Leary is guaranteed a testing night and avoiding the concession of an early goal will be key. Clare went for the jugular right from the off in the Munster final and when O’Donnell goaled on 21 minutes, the game was done. Clare ’keeper Keith Hogan proved his worth with a string of fine saves in the Munster semi-final and with Jack Guiney and Conor McDonald lurking dangerously close to goal, he must be on his guard.
Surely it’s advantage Clare here. Colm Galvin was among the top senior midfielders in the country in 2013 while Eoin Enright was probably the county’s finest performer in the provincial final hammering of Cork. The pair cross swords this evening with the lesser known Aidan Nolan and Conor Devitt. In the one game where serious questions were asked of Clare this summer, the extra-time Munster semi-final win over Tipperary — the Banner midfield were a distant second. Tipperary’s dominance here proved the launchpad from which they registered 1-25, not to mention the engineering of a host of goal opportunities. You can be sure JJ Doyle has studied that video and knows this is an area where Wexford can and must emerge on top.