This is going to be a big weekend even by the standards of All-Ireland quarter-finals because of the opening of Páirc Uí Chaoimh. In a fantastic year for hurling so far with Wexford back and Cork back, this is further great news.
A lot of these players would have been young fellas going to Clare-Tipp matches back in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They were tremendous occasions but who’ll be more inspired on Saturday afternoon?
You can draw a line of form through Cork for these teams. Both of them finished close enough on the scoreboard but didn’t really take the challenge to the energetic opposition.
Clare were guilty of overthinking the game plan but added to their problems by conceding the puck-outs and, when in possession, shooting poor wides from the middle of the field and not availing of a couple of goal chances. They have room for improvement but more importantly, they need to improve if they’re going to be contenders.
They were disappointing in the Munster final. Podge Collins was apparently injured going into the game. Tony Kelly improved on his Limerick form but was still not at his best, whereas Conor McGrath wasn’t the force of nature that he can be – and which Clare need him to be. Even allowing for the fact that the supply into McGrath, Shane O’Donnell and Aaron Shanagher was so sluggish.
Still, McGrath can be lethal on form and I felt that his touch just wasn’t right in Thurles.
David McInerney will be a huge loss for Clare at full back. He played well against Cork but crucially he was also their primary leadership figure and it’s hard to think of worse timing for an injury than when about to face Tipperary’s revived full-forward line.
Against Dublin, they seemed to find their rhythm again, allowing for the caveat that the opposition was terribly poor. It was still a good run-out for the forwards. Séamus Callanan and John McGrath scored freely and the supply of ball was good, which it hadn’t been against Cork.
The other encouraging thing was with Bonner Maher back, the work rate in the half forwards improved. That’s key to their success because if they help the ball into the full forwards they win. Stats last year showed that Dan McCormack was the team’s top tackler; this year he’s scored more but the work rate hasn’t been quite as impressive.
What’s untested about Tipperary in the qualifiers – and this is still the case – is their energy levels and their defence. They were shown to be creaky against Cork with a lack of pace particularly evident. Even against Dublin there were moments when Eamonn Dillon was running at them and they didn’t look comfortable.
I think the game has changed this year and it’s been more about running and energy than catching high ball and brushing opponents out of the way, which was something that paid off for Tipp’s domination in the half-back line.
This season teams are on the move a bit more and that hasn’t necessarily suited Tipperary. Cork’s pace was obvious but even though Galway are a powerful team, their movement was the actual cause of major difficulties around the middle third in the league final.
The half backs were imperious last year but there just isn’t the same amount of ball raining down on them. They have been, if anything, under pressure and that has meant the full forwards haven’t been getting good ball in front of them.
Clare have that mobility around the middle but can they win enough primary possession? Tipp are stronger in that area and I think Clare will have less opportunities than against Cork.
There’s also a benchmark in Sunday’s quarter-final, but a more positive one for the teams. Wexford and Waterford have both beaten Kilkenny this season. They struggled but that was to be expected given the history between the respective counties.
I had been concerned by Waterford’s display against Cork. They were sluggish in their scoring, managing a total of only 1-15.
Slightly unexpectedly from my point of view, they were much improved against Kilkenny. Scores came more freely, they got goals, Austin Gleeson shot five points, Jamie Barron posed a threat coming through from midfield. Tadhg de Búrca sat back in the pocket, directing traffic and it was a much more comfortable performance than against Cork – but then Kilkenny aren’t as good and were kept going only by the fumes of tradition
At all stages Waterford looked better. Darragh Fives stepped up his game and general play was much better – stronger and more dynamic.
In Leinster, Kilkenny did expose weaknesses in the Wexford game that Galway exploited in the provincial final. The Wexford full back line has looked in trouble under pressure, from Colin Fennelly, Conor Cooney and Tipperary in the league semi-final.
You would however have more reservations about Waterford’s capacity to score compared to the likes of Galway. They have a number of players who are ball winners more than scorers, like Brick Walsh, Jake Dillon and Kevin Moran.
The teams will probably play a fairly similar style and there’s a fair chance that either de Búrca or Shaun Murphy will end up as man of the match, based on the amount of ball they’ll probably hit. De Búrca has the edge though. He’s been doing it longer and Waterford have been playing that system for longer than Wexford.
They were more or less reduced to relying on Jack Guiney to win ball and rumble at Galway. Their scoring was fairly limited to Lee Chin from midfield and Conor McDonald chipping in but is Chin in that central role going to score as much as Austin Gleeson? Does he have that range? He’s more reliable than Gleeson but doesn’t have his ‘A’ game.
Wexford will need goals and I can’t see them scoring enough to beat Waterford.