Feverish Saturday night ahead for Cork and Clare

It struck me over the weekend that there have only been three out of the last 26 years that I haven’t been involved in inter-county hurling, as either a player or manager.

Feverish Saturday night ahead for Cork and Clare

This weekend was obviously going to be different but I still crammed in as much hurling as I could. I was in Cork on Saturday night and Clarecastle yesterday morning. I caught the tail end of Clarecastle U16 training before watching part of a challenge game between Clare and Laois minors. Some habits are hard to kick.

Still, I got a great night’s sleep on Saturday. Instead of thinking about formations and opposition players that could cause you rack, I was able to switch off and relax. All I had to worry about was being on the road to Galway in good time because I knew the traffic would be animal.

You never really know what to expect on the opening day of the league but the one thing you’re guaranteed in Salthill is a breeze raging in from the Atlantic. The oddity about yesterday’s Galway-Clare clash was that both teams actually played better against the breeze than they did with it pressed to their backs.

It was a strange game. There was a good crowd but little or no atmosphere until the match ignited in a late welter of excitement. Prior to the last quarter, one of the biggest cheers of the afternoon was when a dog ran onto the pitch and referee Brian Gavin grabbed him by the collar and escorted him out over the fence. In fairness to Gavin, he was always a good man to catch a dog.

If you’d asked Davy Fitzgerald and Anthony Cunningham with six minutes to go if they’d take a draw, I’d say they’d have bitten your hand off. After Galway edged over the line, their supporters sewed it into the Clare crowd in the stand. Galway fans were out on the pitch afterwards looking for autographs. It was a huge two points for Galway but neither team will be getting carried away with the result.

During the game, it appeared that Clare might step on the gas and speed out past Galway but it never happened. It might have on a dry day in July but February is about digging in and Galway got out the shovels and lifted more soil out of the ground. Clare are entitled to feel aggrieved about the last two Galway frees but they will focus on other concerns. They’re still searching for the right formula in the full-back line. They were well beaten on their own puck-out in the first half. Clare needed to haul Conor McGrath off the bench, when they probably thought they might get the job done without him. In fairness to the Clare management, McGrath looked razor sharp when he did come on.

It wasn’t all wine and roses for Galway either. Two of their full-back line were substituted. I’m sure they’d have liked to get more from their half-forward line, apart from Johnny Glynn. Galway persisted with Johnny at 11 when I felt it was crying out to put him into the edge of the square but he came up with the decisive play for Joseph Cooney’s goal. Jason Flynn and Cathal Mannion always looked dangerous up top and I liked the look of both of them.

The Clare management might learn as much from yesterday as Galway did. Yet it’s still nice to have two points in the bag and the results over the weekend have really raised the stakes for next weekend’s Cork-Clare clash.

I was lucky enough to captain Clare for eight years and I know if I was in Anthony Nash’s position at the moment, I’d be calling a players meeting before training on Tuesday night. They have serious questions to answer after Saturday evening’s performance.

Apart from Nash, Cormac Murphy, Seamus Harnedy and Conor Lehane, in spots, every other player needs to take a long hard look at himself. Management might have to hold their hands up as well but in such a pivotal year for this group, when a big statement needed to be made, Cork were flat again.

On the other hand, you have to give it to Kilkenny. What struck me first was how lean and in such good shape the older guys were. They might have been playing head-tennis with Edwin Van der Sar over in Miami but they must have been pumping weights as well on the team holiday. They looked savage fit. Walter Walsh and Mark Kelly looked like men possessed.

That’s what separates Kilkenny from everyone else. Why couldn’t Cork come with that attitude on Saturday night? Why couldn’t Tipp bring it to Parnell Park yesterday? When Kilkenny fringe players get an opportunity, they play like demented animals. It’s that type of attitude which separated Kilkenny from their two traditional rivals over the last decade.

I was delighted for the Dubs yesterday. They needed a big performance and they got it. In fairness to Ger Cunningham, the structural changes he made to the team worked. Mikey Carton reportedly had a great game at full-back. Someone said to me yesterday evening, “Why didn’t you try him there before?”

I actually did. We played Mikey at number 3 in a challenge game against Clare early in 2013 and a young unknown, Shane O’Donnell, took him for 2-2. Mikey had the class and mentality to make a fist of it but we never tried him there again.

February is February!

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