Joe Canning: Clare’s confidence will be tested against Wexford

It’s hard to see any way Dublin can beat Cork

Conor Cleary endured a difficult time during Clare's defeat by Limerick and will need to regain top form against Wexford. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

In football and hurling the quarter-finals are very different. Eight football teams will arrive in Croke Park next weekend feeling good about themselves. Four of them will have topped their group in the round-robin phase of the Sam Maguire, and the other four will have won a knockout match this weekend.

In the hurling quarter-finals everyone is carrying some kind of baggage. Two teams are dealing with a provincial final loss in their last game, and the other two will have questions hanging over them.

That is true this weekend. In different ways, Clare and Dublin didn’t produce the performance they expected of themselves in their provincial finals. On the face of it, Dublin’s hammering by Kilkenny might have looked more painful, but Clare had a lot to deal with leaving Semple Stadium too. They expected to win and didn’t really come close.

Cork generated serious momentum from their last two Munster matches a month ago, but they were sloppy against Offaly last weekend and for the fourth time this summer they shipped a big score. And Wexford? The performances they produced against Dublin and Antrim in the Leinster championship won’t be good enough against Clare. The Galway performance would give them a chance. Either way, they have questions to answer.


You’re never sure how the provincial losers are going to react. Fifteen minutes into the Leinster final it was obvious that Dublin were going to get a hiding and it was easy to think that their season was over. But in 2011 I played against a Waterford team that had lost a Munster final by seven goals and then beat us by 10 points in the All-Ireland quarter final. Nobody saw that coming.

How well Clare have regrouped over the last fortnight is probably the biggest question. Two years ago they were so exhausted after the Munster final that Wexford outplayed them for an hour and probably should have won. Last year, Clare recovered more quickly and beat Dublin without any stress or fuss.

It is hard to know exactly where they are now. Where are their heads? Where are their confidence levels? Take someone like Conor Cleary. He missed the Munster final last year through injury and Clare couldn’t replace him effectively. This year, he lost his duel against Aaron Gillane. He was penalised for off the ball fouls that eventually led to a booking. In the end Clare had to move him away from Gillane before they finally took him off.

Clare’s Conor Cleary and Aaron Gillane of Limerick in the Munster final. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Cleary is the Clare captain and has been a formidable player for a long time. Taking him off in the Munster final wouldn’t have been a decision that Brian Lohan took lightly. Every team has struggled with Gillane over the years, but this was probably the first time that Cleary lost the battle hands down. The right kind of ball was coming in too often and too easily. In that situation, every full back line will struggle.

Cleary, though, is a strong character and I don’t think there will be any hangover. In the Munster final, Cleary was penalised for the kind of pulling and dragging off the ball that every full back must do in order to survive. I’m not talking about being dirty but a tug of a jersey or a pull on an arm could buy you a yard and that could make the difference.

Colm Lyons was obviously in touch with his umpires. He had refereed the first round game in Ennis as well and they must have come to the conclusion that they missed stuff that day. Full-backs, though, will always take that chance. Cleary won’t be any different on Saturday.

The battle between Clare’s full-back line and Wexford’s full-forward line will be pivotal. Lee Chin, Conor McDonald and Rory O’Connor have been terrific for Wexford in the championship and at least two of them will stay inside. At times, all three of them will be in there.

Wexford will be inclined to go route one and that will suit Cleary. McDonald is brilliant in the air, and so is Chin, but if the Wexford full-forward is standing close to goal Cleary will cope with that. The challenge against Limerick is that they play deep diagonal ball to the corners and create space for Gillane and Seamus Flanagan to run into. Every full-back and cornerback hates that kind of delivery. Wexford don’t play like that.

Clare can’t afford their half-back line to be as ineffective as it was in the Munster final and they have to sort out their free-taking. In hurling and football, free takers are taken for granted until they start missing. Every winning team in hurling must have a 9/10 free taker – not just at the beginning of the game, but when the pressure comes on.

Clare’s Aidan McCarthy. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Of the Clare team that started the Munster final, four of the forwards have been their preferred free taker at one stage or another over the years: Aidan McCarthy, Tony Kelly, Peter Duggan and Mark Rodgers. Right now, McCarthy is not their best option.

I don’t see Clare losing, and I don’t see Cork being caught either. Against Cork, Dublin’s choices aren’t great. If they push up there will be space in Dublin’s half of the field and against Cork’s pace that is a lethal cocktail. In a shoot-out Dublin have no chance.

If they play a sweeper and work the ball through the lines they won’t meet as much resistance from Cork as they did against Kilkenny in the Leinster final but their execution will need to be a hundred times better. By closing down the space between Cork’s half-forwards and inside forwards, though, Dublin are going to be leaving themselves light in the attacking half.

One way or another I can’t see a plan that will result in a Dublin win.