Clare, the Ed Sheeran of hurling, search for their identity

One state-of-the-art new ground, descended from outer space and come to gracious rest in genteel Ballintemple. 

Two near full-house All-Ireland quarter- finals. Three teams that can be guaranteed to perform, within narrow parameters, to an expected level this weekend. And a fourth team that may produce anything on the day, an element of unpredictability that renders the first of the games a mistier prospect and harder call than the second.

Team 1, Waterford.

Won’t concede much, won’t rack up a vast total. They’re Waterford. We know what they do.

Team 2, Wexford.

Won’t concede much, will probably score less than Waterford. They’re Wexford. We know what they can’t do, their failings having been clinically laid bare in the Leinster final. Don’t expect tomorrow’s encounter to be some celestial conjunction of the 2013 All-Ireland replay and the 1970 World Cup final. Then again, you weren’t.

Team 3, Tipperary.

Will score till the cows come home once given the slightest invitation, but vulnerable at the back and can be got at by opponents with imagination. Which brings us neatly to…

Team 4, Clare.

Do they have the imagination? More to the point, do they have the attitude and brashness to give it socks this afternoon? To carry the battle to Tipperary with the focused ferocity their forebears of 20 years ago would have and did?

In pure hurling terms Jamesie O’Connor was the only forward on that team who’d make today’s lineup. But that’s not to say that someone like PJ O’Connell or Conor Clancy would go amiss right now for the variety they’d offer up front.

In the flush of 2013 it was not remotely fanciful to envisage the current group winning another two All-Irelands before the decade was out. Four years later that boat is about to sail. Not every speedy two-year-old colt trains on, still fewer grow up to be Frankel, but it would be nice if Clare at least possessed brand recognition, a USP. Everyone else left in the competition does.

Cork? Youthful attacking verve. Galway? Awesome physicality. Tipperary? That full-forward line. Wexford? Davy. Waterford? Sweepers, Austin Gleeson. Clare? Hmm… In the words of David Cameron, “I was the future once.”

They’re the beige of hurling, they’re the Complan of hurling, they’re the Ed Sheeran of hurling. Today they either discover and unleash their inner Ozzy Osbourne or they exit the championship, quite possibly as meekly as they exited the Munster final. Let them sacrifice a chicken, bite the head off a bat, whatever. At any rate let them stop overthinking and get the ball into the full-forward line a bit quicker, then have the bloodymindedness to win it and the gumption to ask questions of that Tipp full-back line.

And yet and yet. Were Clare really as poor a fortnight ago as those withering post-mortems have depicted?

Granted, they wrapped themselves in knots over Anthony Nash’s puckouts with the result that analysis became paralysis. Nonetheless with a minute of normal time remaining they were only two points behind, and that after missing a penalty and hitting the woodwork twice.

Did they hurl with unnecessary timidity? Absolutely. But did they hurl as poorly as the general consensus had it? Absolutely not. If Cork were that good, and they patently always had something in hand, Clare by extension cannot have been that bad. (Whether this means that too many people have got caught up in the excitement over the new crimson tide and are overrating Kieran Kingston’s team is a matter to be explored in greater detail come the second weekend of August.)

Perhaps the losers are entitled to a pass — a 24-hour pass — for the failure to be more expansive and enterprising. Old habits dying hard and all that; sloughing off the skin of the Davy era and erasing the bad habits of its latter period was never going to be a one-day job. A one-championship job, more like.

Today there’s no Nash down the other end and therefore no second-guessing themselves into distraction about the enemy’s puckouts. It’s a starting point.

What was infinitely more irritating in the Munster final than what Clare did without the ball was what they did with it.

Seven successive attacks early in the second half when assisted by the breeze yielded the following results: Tony Kelly wide from midfield when hurrying his shot; Colm Galvin point on the run from midfield; Galvin delivery short to Nash from midfield; Kelly wide from the wing 65m out; Galvin wide from midfield; David Reidy wide from the wing 55m out; Galvin, inside his own half, short to Nash.

You’ll have noticed a theme there. Shots from midfield or almost-midfield with the aid of the elements. Rushing matters. Forcing things. And whatever about overhitting one’s full-forward line and having the sliotar plop into the waiting paw of the opposition goalkeeper when facing the wind, overhitting one’s full-forward line when backed by the wind is a criminal offence.

Clare are old enough now. Boys to men. Their game management and way with logistics should be better than this.

It needs to be today, with any number of questions to be asked of the Tipperary’s rearguard. The pace in the half-back line, James Barry’s comfort in the corner, Darragh Mooney’s footwork. But Clare have been unlucky with injuries, the absence of Aron Shanagher robbing them of an outlet in the full-forward line and the loss of David McInerney depriving them of an obvious candidate to help double-team Seamus Callanan.

Callanan has become one of the wonders of the age. Those three-goal performances have been so commonplace as to receive little more than a polite round of applause at this stage. One reason for his consistent effectiveness is the work he’s put in on tightening his grip and honing his swing. The last time Callanan was hooked was way back in that prehistoric epoch when JJ Delaney roamed the land.

One is entitled to have doubts about this Tipp team’s determination in a battle, their resolve when the whips are produced.

But they’ll score enough here to win, as per usual, and they may not concede enough to lose. Either way this afternoon is bound to be more engaging than tomorrow.

Waterford/Wexford will not be easy on the eye. It will not be highs coring. It may well end goalless.

A dry reading of the formbook with Kilkenny as a reference point signals Wexford, but that would be to take literalism to new places.

They were three points better than Brian Cody’s side in Wexford Park; Waterford were eight points better than them after an hour in Semple Stadium and seven points better than them at the end of extra time. Play that qualifier again the following Saturday and Waterford, with those pestiferous 58-year-old simian creatures finally off their backs, would have turned their eight-point advantage at the 60th minute into a 12-point advantage by the 70th minute.

Wexford have been good and valiant and have punched their weight manfully. Problem is, they’re throwing their shots in the middle divisions and in the Leinster final they came up against a bunch of metaphorical and actual heavyweights. And look at their scoring returns and the percentage of their points sourced from defenders: Eyecatching, creditable from a coaching point of view, but unsustainable in the medium term, never mind the long run.

Conor McDonald was poor in Wexford Park and no more than adequate against Galway. They’ll require him to be more prominent tomorrow. Freetaking, which they got away with against Kilkenny, remains an issue, moreover.

(In passing: Lee Chin, the captain of the pikemen, would be a cert if the All Stars were picked today. Let’s hope he doesn’t get run out of it by the time October comes.)

For obvious confidence-related reasons Waterford should kick on after disposing of Kilkenny. A slight qualm concerns the prospect of them failing to open up a lead by the interval; the longer Wexford are within striking distance, the greater vulnerability of Derek McGrath’s charges to being mugged in the closing stages. But they have more and better options on the bench and with a third successive All Ireland semi-final beckoning they possess sufficient nous to see this one out.

A new ground with its complement of bells and whistles, familiar competitors with their range of strengths and weaknesses. Tipperary and Waterford, beset by fewer failings than their opponents, to advance.



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