Questions, questions, questions. Yesterday 31,690 representatives from four counties arrived in Semple Stadium looking for answers.
They got some, too. The easy ones first. The winners? Waterford and Galway progress to the All-Ireland semi-finals.
The better game? Clare-Galway was a better contest, certainly.
The bigger game? Same as, given the hinterland.
Davy Fitzgerald’s heart scare, Ger Loughnane’s comments about Galway: This one had all the pre-game hype of the season squeezed into one match.
In the end, Galway had six points to spare and the manner in which the killer blow was delivered will look dreadfully familiar to the Clare supporters.
The Banner leaked a crucial goal in the opening seconds of the second half, with their defenders yet to align.
What hurt them in the drawn league final killed off their championship yesterday: Seconds after the restart, trailing by seven points, they needed to begin the second half with a bang.
Instead, Joe Canning flashed in a superb goal from a tight angle and Clare’s task was Himalayan.
The wind had made a difference to Galway in the first half, with Colm Callanan’s long puck-outs forcing the Clare half-backs deeper and deeper. So did Galway’s workrate: They pressured Clare’s puck-outs and forced Banner ‘keeper Andrew Fahy long more often than he would have liked.
Adrian Tuohy’s superb hook on Tony Kelly 25 minutes in grew more crucial as the game wore on, and Galway’s supremacy in close combat told over the field.
They also got a goal, of course: Conor Cooney’s near-post shot wouldn’t have pleased the two former ‘keepers on the Clare sideline, but it was a neat finish, and a boost Galway deserved on the balance of play.
A seven-point lead at the half, 1-10 to 0-6, and then Galway’s glittering necklace of passes before that bullet finish from Joe Canning: 2-10 to 0-6.
Credit Clare, they hit three on the bounce to cancel that goal out, but it was the kind of restart that a losing team is crying out for.
A huge Tony Kelly point embellished their comeback but a Galway defence in which Daithí Burke dominated, and which was organised well by the calm, reliable Callanan never allowed Clare the green flag they needed.
At the final whistle, Galway manager Micheal Donoghue was deadpan about the Loughnane comments, focusing on the significance of Canning’s goal instead: “Any day you get to a final, a provincial final, there are always people who are going to have comments and analysis of that, but with respect, the only people that matter are people that we have respect for — family and friends and stuff.
“When we reviewed the Leinster final, of course we recognised that there was lots of work we had to do. The past three weeks we worked really hard and I think they got their just rewards today.
“It (the goal) was huge, we didn’t realise how strong the breeze was until we got to the ground. I suppose we were fortunate to get it in the first half, to build up the lead, and that goal then gave us the cushion that we needed.”
His opposite number was making no excuses.
“They were the better team,” said Clare boss Davy Fitzgerald.
“I thought physically they dominated us from day one. Fair play to them. We’ve nothing but admiration for the way they played. How can you be a gutless team, a bad team, if you go to two All-Ireland finals and win a Leinster title? They had plenty of motivation to play well and they did.”
In the first game, after the sound and fury about formations after the Munster final, did Waterford change theirs against Wexford?
There was an orthodox shape to their defence early on — nobody fainted in Thurles as a result, as far as we could see — and after nine minutes they were six points to one ahead.
Then Darragh Fives went off injured: When Conor Gleeson came on for Waterford, Tadhg de Búrca drifted into a spare role, and the men in white and blue went on to strangle their opponents.
The imponderable with Wexford in the run-up to yesterday was how good they were, exactly.
Their victory over Cork, emotional and historic as it might have been, had been over a poor outfit, a side that had come within 70 minutes of relegation to Division 1B; and yet Cork had still almost stolen a win in Semple Stadium two weeks ago.
Against genuine contenders, Wexford could manage only five points in the first 42 minutes, and their opponents had a hefty lead at that point: It was then that Maurice Shanahan slalomed through the Wexford defence to put his side 10 clear.
Loose talk about psychological scarring in Waterford proved to be no more than that. Their willingness to shoot showed confidence, and their appetite for getting in their blocks showed hunger. All over the field their touch was better than Wexford’s: They were better, pure and simple.
To steal a Lionel Shriver line, though, we need to talk about the wides. Waterford’s wayward shooting got their misses well into double figures before half-time, and in the curious world of GAA terminology, some of those were very bad indeed.
“I’ve been consistent on that,” said Waterford boss Derek McGrath afterwards. “I never really mind wides, other than to point out in the dressing-room that you could be in a better situation, but if that takes over the mind then it becomes a retrospective point. You say it afterwards, ‘we dominated that game’.
“Midway through the second half we’d have said Waterford didn’t deserve to lose that game, given how dominant they were in the first half.
“I think they got five points in a row and then we came with a rally of six points in a row — I’m particularly delighted for the lads who were very hurt by how they performed in 35 minutes against Tipperary in Limerick.”
Another matter in McGrath’s in-tray was the lapse which allowed Wexford to hit five on the trot in the second half. They stopped the rot, however, and restored their lead to eight by the 62nd minute, eventually running out double-digit winners, 0-21 to 0-11.
Neither Donoghue nor McGrath will be particularly bothered, but the championship’s hunt for a stellar game goes on.
Wexford managed five points in their first half yesterday, and Clare only amassed one more than that in their opening 35 minutes.
Waterford and Galway were efficient enough to win but with plenty of deficiencies to address in the next few weeks, which is probably what both managers wanted.
Can Galway replicate the way they smothered Clare’s puck-out options? Can Waterford recalibrate Austin Gleeson’s radar for Croke Park? Are Tipperary now forewarned about Galway’s quality or was that unnecessary after last year? How much have Waterford learned about playing Kilkenny?
For everyone else, though, one question dominated: When are we getting a top quality game?
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