Once more we hope for the best but fear the worst

The chap who deeveedees the matches for me — look, I’m horribly middle-aged and not very good with the oul’ technology — had a confession to make last Sunday night. He’d neglected to tape the first half.

He was expecting a few impolite, meaningful words.

Instead he very nearly received a hug and a payrise.

Talk about bringing someone tidings of great joy. His error meant your correspondent will never have to endure the first half of Clare/Waterford again.

Yay.

As it turned out the part he did manage to tape began midway through with Donal O’Grady reviewing the opening half. Not only did An tUasal Ó G compare it to chess, which was fair enough, he also deemed it to have been “an-suimiúil”, which one has to say was pushing it. Very interesting to viewers from the sado-masochistic end of the hurling spectrum, possibly, but hardly to the honest, clean-living, god-fearing majority who populate the Old Stand and eat their dinner in the middle of the day.

Thirteen points in total. Twelve wides for Waterford and another two efforts dropped short to Pa Kelly. The traffic chaos we’d dreaded coming to pass. This was right up there with the asphyxiation horror movie that was the first half of Clare v Limerick in last year’s Munster championship.

It was a wonder someone didn’t pen a pained piece during the week calling for teams to be reduced to 14 a side, or even — a la the colleges game in the early 1970s — 13 a side, in order to open up the exchanges.

Is there some obscure sub-section in the rulebook that might allow Diarmuid Kirwan to flash two red cards before throw-in tomorrow, thereby helping declutter the avenues from the off?

Worst fears were imagined last Sunday, two mirror-image teams producing an afternoon of endlessly receding mirrors. Not for nothing did some bookies, who’d gone 16/1 about no goals in the semi-finals, go 17/2 about no goals a week ago and again tomorrow. As the old saw has it, you rarely see a poor bookie. Even allowing for the machinations of WP Mullins.

The obvious line of condemnation is to blame the mutually assured destruction wreaked by similar gameplans. But don’t forget to cite good old-fashioned human error too, for which read those first-half Waterford wides. Five were from Austin Gleeson, three by Patrick Curran, two in injury time by Kevin Moran.

What compounded the situation was that, bizarrely in a game with such a dearth of space between the 45s, the majority of them were not hit under pressure or snatched at from low-percentage angles.

The decision-making behind most of the wides was blameless. It was the execution that reeked. This wasn’t a systems failure or some flaw in the design of Derek McGrath’s software. It was, instead, sheer and simple inaccuracy.

Every wide — and throw in Clare’s four during the same period for good measure — sucked a little more oxygen from an already over-full room.

What might have been a brisk and sprightly opening 35 minutes became the equivalent of watching the boxset of Dáil Report minus the exciting bits.

Clare trailing by five or six points and being forced to go for it would have made for a very different second half. In the event it wasn’t until the players tired in extra time and Tom Devine decided to demonstrate his Mick Mackey impression that the game became stretched.

The kindest thing that can be said is that at least we ended up getting a contest.

Having set themselves high standards over the past 15 months, Waterford will be equally dismayed by their failure to close out the issue in normal time. Diving in on Cathal O’Connell, hardly the most physically threatening of opponents and a chap who at that precise moment was in no position to do anything even vaguely redolent of clear and present danger, instead of standing off and forcing him to make a decision himself was naivety of a high order. Champions, when they can’t hang the other crowd, usually give them sufficient rope to do the job themselves.

The Déise’s puckout management remains a work in progress, particularly in — shades of last year’s Munster final — the closing stages. Doing the simple thing well constitutes the bedrock of their gameplan, an accretion of the simple things done cleanly and quickly and adding up over the course of the 70 minutes.

The problem with making so many balls a short ball, however, is that every so often the law of averages kicks in.

Podge Collins’s 63rd minute point came about because Stephen O’Keeffe primped a puck-out to Noel Connors, who primped a pass up the line. One stray touch and the sliotar was turned over. A few minutes later O’Keeffe dallied in possession, was half-blocked and the sliotar squirted clear for an opportunity Tony Kelly drove wide.

On the face of it there has to be a place in the game for the occasional ignorant long ball down the field. A misstep in the last five minutes and you’re over the edge of the cliff, plunging and screaming. Yet one can see the rub for the O’Keeffes of this world and one ought to acknowledge it. Although Tommy Walsh and JJ Delaney are no longer inter-county players, belting that ignorant long ball down the field to where the other crowd are mobhanded still necessitates giving away possession and affords the enemy the opportunity to pick their way through the trenches.

Which is the lesser of the two evils? This is as near to existentialism as modern hurling gets.

Some other observations.

No player was more acutely missed six days ago, and will be again tomorrow, than John Conlon, by the neutral as well as by Clare. Not that Waterford would have left him one on one with Barry Coughlan on the edge of the square, but his very and considerable presence would have allowed for variation on a theme.

Clare’s response to opposition puckouts has improved noticeably. While none of them will ever be wizards in the air they made sure to attack the dropping ball in numbers at every possible opportunity, then get sufficient further numbers around it on the ground to render the break a 50-50 entity. One imagines a drill of this nature was the first item Paul Kinnerk pulled from his bag of tricks on returning to the fold.

Tony Kelly was, understandably, not quite at concert pitch. He’ll be closer to it tomorrow. He won’t hit four wides again either.

Does any contemporary hurler give a greater impression of having all the time in the world on his hands than Conor McGrath? It’s less that he runs fast and thinks slow, more that he frequently seems to be running in slow motion while computing his options.

Shane Bennett was heroic. He’s 19-years-old. Imagine the extent to which he and Patrick Curran could flourish when Maurice Shanahan and Pauric Mahony are back in the starting XV and resuming their roles as the go-to guys.

Bennett and Curran will no longer be required to act as outlets or be all things to their colleagues. They’ll merely be required to do their bit, and make their inevitable little mistakes, and develop at their own pace.

Once more unto the breach tomorrow. Once more we hope for the best while fearing the worst. Will the teams disappear even further up their own posteriors or will gay abandon be the order of the day? Will there be sweepers or no sweepers? Will Brian Cody thoughtfully opt to lend a hand by sending in TJ Reid as an advisor?

The feeling here remains as it was a week ago. Waterford’s need and motivation are slightly greater.

Incidentally, for any reader driven demented at home by bold children who won’t go to bed or eat their greens or say their prayers, the perfect solution exists. Show them that first half from last Sunday. That’ll put manners on ‘em.

Just don’t ask my DVD guy for a copy.


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