The last time this amount of attention was paid to tactics ahead of play Wellington and Napoleon were glowering at each other across a muddy field in Belgium.
At least that day was decisive. We all arrived in Thurles for yesterday’s league final with antennae finely tuned for ploys and diversions, feints and counter-attacks. Patterns! Systems! Clare versus Waterford!
We were undone, though, by most of yesterday’s fare, which ended with a draw after 90-odd minutes, extra time included, that gave nobody issues with their blood pressure. Usually a last-second free to equalise, landed from long range by Waterford’s Maurice Shanahan, denotes a cliffhanger; this wasn’t even a gentle incline-hanger.
“It was a bit cagey at the start,” said Waterford boss Derek McGrath afterwards. “As predicted, but I thought both teams opened up and any semblance of the teams not wanting to win it went out the window. It was out the window beforehand, mind you.
“We’re just happy to expose our team to that kind of pressure, that kind of game, that kind of environment. It’s a brilliant opportunity for our players to face that again next weekend, that’s very welcome.”
McGrath said this was shaping up to be a trilogy, with the third game the teams’ Munster championship game in June. His counterpart in Clare concurred.
“I’d agree with him 110%,” said Davy Fitzgerald.
“I can’t wait for the next two, I just can’t wait to go again, I’m really looking forward to it. Great battles between two great teams and I seriously can’t wait for it.
“We had to stand up at the end of normal time and Conor McGrath put over a free that was absolutely incredible and I’m so proud of him and what he did. Everything was on the line for us and he did it.
“And fair play to Maurice Shanahan at the end, he did it when he had to do it. That shows you what hurlers are about and even from a hurling man, I just feel it was a savage game of men to men, toe to toe. That’s the way I see it, maybe ye see it different, but that’s how I saw it.”
Lessons learned? In general terms there’s certainly an argument for some new positions if yesterday is anything to go by — players may now end up lining out half-Gleeson, or off-Collins, or other such borrowings from cricket. At 3.30pm yesterday, for instance, in Thurles both teams had one player in their full-forward line and almost everybody else between the 45s, milling about in a misshapen crowd; for a while both teams’ strike forwards, Shane Bennett and Conor McGrath, were marking each other in the middle of the field.
With the traffic in the middle third the game was slow to fire, both sides hitting wides: Hardly a shock given the sheer number of bodies in close proximity to each other.
First touch in Thurles needed to be adhesive and instant, otherwise you were swallowed up the many-footed mob rolling around the middle of the field. Just ask the Waterford defender who missed his first pick-up out on the wing and was coursed back into his own large parallelogram.
Clare were sharper, with Tony Kelly involved, and more accurate: They had half the number of Waterford wides and were two up on 25 minutes.
Then the game livened up briefly: First a high tackle by Tony Kelly on Colin Dunford on 28 minutes which saw the Waterford man go off briefly for treatment — was Kelly fortunate to receive just a yellow? — before a touchline flare-up between the two management teams.
Long-running convention demands we describe it as a frank exchange of views.
Pardon the facetiousness, but it was needed for warmth. Yesterday’s game was far from riveting for long stretches, particularly after the goalfests we saw in the semi-finals: Waterford’s dozen first-half wides should give you some idea of the quality. This writer could have sworn he heard the word ‘intriguing’ at one stage during half-time, and when you’re reaching for words like intriguing you might as well be describing a football match.
Waterford were more energised on the resumption, winning a big turnover and a free within a minute on the Ryan Stand side, but their radar continued to misfire — they hit four wides in the five minutes after the break alone (and reached 18 long before the three-quarter stage).
Clare weren’t setting the world on fire either, hitting poor wides themselves, but they were marginally better.
That precise margin? They hit the only score, a point, of the first 10 minutes of the second half, a Conor McGrath free.
The same man hit the game’s first flash of quality on 50 minutes, a superb point from the wing, and when he added a point from another free one minute later, it was 0-11 to 0-8. On the day it looked like a winning lead but Shane Bennett stirred himself and reeled Clare in, almost single-handedly, and then, improbably, Gleeson nudged Waterford ahead.
Ten minutes left. A game in prospect, finally?
McGrath tied it up and a resurgent Podge Collins restored Clare’s lead. Barron and Bennett kept Waterford level. McGrath was needed to hit an angled free to give us another 30 minutes, and he obliged: Credit to the man from Cratloe for keeping his nerve (said neutrals through gritted teeth).
In fairness, Waterford sub Brian O’Halloran opened the extra-time scoring with a magnificent score from the corner, and the holders were soon three up; before the break, though, Clare were back on terms thanks to that man McGrath. It looked as though Clare were home late in injury-time in extra time, but Maurice Shanahan liked the look of his free the second he made contact with the ball. Draw. It was good afterwards to see Fitzgerald hug Shanahan in congratulation: a welcome splash of colour on a monochrome enough day.
What kind of shadow was cast by the missing men? Apologies for looking down the track, but even the league decider exists partly on its merits, partly as championship preview.
John Conlon was conspicuous by his absence on the field and his presence under the stand in a padded boot afterwards: Clare wouldn’t like to face their championship clash without him — they struggled at times to get the ball to stick up front, a particular quality Conlon possesses.
Maurice Shanahan came on for Waterford and nailed that last-gasp equaliser, but the men in white and blue had free-taking travails all through; will Derek McGrath take a punt on the returning Padraic Mahony to ensure a return in the championship? Mahony got a run yesterday which amounted to acclimatisation and little more, but he may have to take the frees next weekend if Waterford want to retain their title.
Both managers will want a little more from key men like Tony Kelly and Tadhg de Burca. The rest of us will be looking for an early goal, maybe, to set the contest alight.
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