Clare and present danger

IT’S official. The summer began yesterday, with a Munster championship game on a day hot enough to make the mercury whimper in the glass.

There were too many scrums and general fumbling to elevate yesterday’s first round game to the pantheon, but Clare won’t worry about that. They crushed Waterford by nine points, 2-26 to 0-23, to set up a semi-final clash with neighbours Limerick in three weeks’ time. We’d have described that prospect as mouth-watering, but we’re still a little dehydrated after yesterday. Give us a break.

It’s understating matters somewhat to say Clare were up for yesterday’s game. Waterford lined out without two Eoins and a Ken — Murphy, Kelly and McGrath, in that order – but their own manager suggested after the game that no team in Ireland would have lived with Clare.

He might have a point. A general impression that Clare had more potential up front yesterday than in recent years wasn’t long being confirmed. After Waterford started well, the Banner forwards reeled off five consecutive points like a gambler freeing up his bankroll, and when a long delivery found open space in front of the Waterford goal, Mark Flaherty kept his composure to beat Clinton Hennessy.

It was interesting that Clare forward Tony Griffin, who helped himself to five points, suggested afterwards that Waterford were more open than the likes of Kilkenny and Cork, and the Banner certainly seemed able to find space up front at their ease – in the first half alone six different Clare names appeared on the scoresheet.

When Waterford tried to lift the siege, they found the Clare forwards willing to defend from the front, and big men such as Griffin, Tony Carmody and Niall Gilligan kept the ball at the Waterford end.

No accident, according to Clare boss Mike McNamara. “We spoke to them about that for the last month,” he said after the game. “That every ball was vital, that every ball had to be won, and as you can see, that was the way they approached the game today.”

The Clare half was more crowded. In this newspaper on Saturday, analyst Donal O’Grady pointed out that in the modern game half-backs tend to catch rather than block the ball, leading to loose ball running through in front of the full-backs behind them. The Clare half-back line attacked the ball in the air vigorously, though they also benefited from an extra body behind them – the full-backs were often protected by Colin Lynch, who dropped back behind his half-back line throughout the game and manned that vital area.

Waterford suffered as a result. In the first half they had barely a goalscoring opportunity worthy of the name, apart from one half-sight of goal for John Mullane, which Plunkett and Patrick Donnellan did well to snuff out. Sparse rations for a side that nourishes itself on three-pointers.

At the other end, Clinton Hennessy had to be smart to put a deflected ball out for a 65 as the half wore down, and for anyone watching this Waterford side, there was a depressing familiarity in the lack of aggressive defending against high ball coming into their goalmouth.

Though there was only a goal in it at the break – 1-12 to 0-12 – the writing was on the wall. Ten minutes after the restart Niall Gilligan won the ball and turned cleverly, a decade’s experience discernible in his neat movement away from the cover. From14 metres he buried a goal to kill the game; Dickie Murphy’s final whistle was the coroner’s stamp.

“No cribs,” said Justin McCarthy afterwards. “With today’s performance I don’t think any team would have beaten Clare. We came up with high ambitions and so on, but at the end of the day they outplayed us. They got great scores from play and from frees, and those two goals were a big issue for us.”

It might have been worse for Waterford, remember. Supporters from the southeast may not want to dwell on what might have happened if John Mullane had been off-form. The De La Salle man was heroic, with eight points from play, and Dave Bennett was unerring from frees.

Waterford face either Antrim or Galway on the first weekend of July, which gives them a month to carry out repairs, and a bad day worsened when Dan Shanahan didn’t shake hands with his manager as he was called ashore, a non-encounter which drew a vocal reaction from the attendance.

But it was Clare’s day, and Clare’s game. Their supporters stood to acclaim Colin Lynch when he came off. The midfielder left it all on the field, just like his colleagues.

“We trained for this game the same as for an All-Ireland final,” said McNamara afterwards. “We had to do something to get out of the hole we were in. Clare hurling had been in a bad way and even the supporters were deserting us in droves, so we had to come up with a big performance.”

Tony Griffin was quick to point out that Waterford were depleted, and they were, but physical presence and maximising your scoring opportunities will sound familiar to the teams which suffered under Clare in the nineties. The more intangible advantage was the collective focus they radiated yesterday from start to finish, which bodes well for their local derby against Limerick. And if they can match their manager’s insouciance, they’ll be hard to beat. Asked if he’d been worried at any stage yesterday, Mike McNamara was breezy: “The last time I got worried it was 1963 or 1964, when I was in boarding school.”

On yesterday’s evidence, others will do some worrying about Clare this summer.


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