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Nicky English: Unwelcome distraction for Clare brings Wexford within reach

Galway may not be as bad as in Leinster final but Cork have momentum to win

I was reminded during the week of the lead-up to the 2001 All-Ireland final when we had Brian O’Meara facing suspension. Management has to proceed on the basis that you’re not getting the player back and that’s how it played out.

Clare would have been in the same boat with the pending disciplinary action involving Rory Hayes and Peter Duggan, planning without them. Given the importance of the pair that would have been very hard.

If losing two influential players is the most disruptive thing facing a team in that situation, the second most disruptive is to get them back unexpectedly midweek.

I’m sure Brian Lohan is thrilled to have them but it would have necessitated a change of gear.

That’s a complication, however welcome. Clare have really impressed me this season as I have frequently mentioned but there are big questions for them this weekend; how much did they invest in the Munster final and how much did that take out of them?

The final two weeks ago was a thundering contest and Clare were right there up until the finish. It’s hard for them in the aftermath to draw a line under it but they have had to because the Munster final is now irrelevant. They are at the starting line for a new competition, a clean slate.

So it’s time to refocus after what was a real statement of a campaign in Munster – losing just once in five matches and that after extra time.

It’s not the case that they have strained to reach their ceiling. They do have room for improvement, such as a greater variety of scorers. For all their excellence in general play, Shane O’Donnell and Pater Duggan didn’t contribute enough on the scoreboard.

The team needs a goal or two to complement the point scoring potential of Tony Kelly, obviously, but also David Fitzgerald and Ryan Taylor.

Physically they are a match for Wexford but this quarter-final is not a foregone conclusion. They’re playing what I consider the best team in Leinster, judged on the season to date.

With all the caveats it brings, they had a very good league – maybe because they were taking it more seriously – until the wheels came off in the semi-finals but on the basis of what we’ve seen since, Waterford could well have been taking it even more seriously.

They lost to Dublin and drew with Westmeath in Leinster, which admittedly isn’t All-Ireland form but the signed off with a very much improved win in Nowlan Park and went on to win comfortably in Tralee. They are improving and their energy levels coming down the stretch will be high.

There won’t be much in this. A year ago, Clare got off to a fast start and built a huge lead but unbelievably, Wexford got back into the match. They’re physical and have players in form, Damien Reck, Conor McDonald and Lee Chin back to his best.

If I was Darragh Egan, I’d stick Damien Reck up Tony Kelly’s jersey. Kelly has been monumental for Clare but Limerick never man-mark him. I’d imagine Wexford will be less willing to roll with that damage.

After the hustle and bustle of the Munster championship and the more sedate pace in Leinster, Saturday brings the first provincial crossovers of the year. Overall Munster was a lot stronger and Clare should confirm that but this is fraught with danger for a team still catching its breath.

First up is Cork-Galway. After a shockingly poor Leinster final, the one consolation for Henry Shefflin could be that Galway were too bad to be true. Their touch was very poor and their performance never got near the level of their best.

Their form, even though patchy all year and in the provincial championship, wasn’t as terrible as in the final. For example, Tom Monaghan had been an impressive performer around the middle up until making little impact against Kilkenny.

Conor Whelan ended up as a one-man band and if he wasn’t going to score, there wasn’t a queue of team-mates to pick up the slack. On the plus side, they never stopped working and never gave up but basic skills let them down. I don’t believe that was a fair representation of where they are but I still have doubts.

They exited last year’s championship with an exceptionally poor display against Waterford and, whereas their work rate is a lot better, there were too many similarities between that performance and the Leinster final for my liking.

The evidence is that they don’t score enough when they’re on top and when they’re under pressure, they concede too much.

At the same time, can we trust Cork? Early season evidence that they had improved their physical strength and overall play fell apart pretty quickly after the league final and championship outings in April, especially against Limerick when they were hammered and well and truly put back in their box.

The do-or-die fixture against Waterford was marked by reconsidering the slavish adherence to working the ball through the lines, which had become a liability for them and a throwing off of the shackles. They played more direct hurling.

Alan Connolly was a help and Conor Lehane started to find form as the ground got better. There is a more workmanlike dynamic in the full forward line. That was all endorsed in a big way against Tipp.

This will be a test for both teams but whoever wins gets a bounce. I think Cork have the potential to bounce higher if they get out of this and they get a tentative vote.