There are different dynamics going into these qualifier rounds: teams that have lost their last match and teams with decent wins under their belt – two very different states of mind.
Clare are buoyant. Brian Lohan must be very proud of their consistency. They had a good level of form in Munster even when they lost against Tipperary. They played well and backed that up against Wexford last week.
They do mix good with bad, though. Cathal Malone is a good individual example. He was in the conversation for Man of the Match with a quick 1-1 and a power of work but either side of that he had a couple of the worst wides you'd ever see.
Then there was very careless use of the ball in defence. Diarmuid Ryan, who mostly did very well also, had a hand-pass easily picked off by Lee Chin. There's a self-destruct button apparently always available. Against Waterford they hit 22 wides. Last week they let Wexford back into a game they were dominating.
On the plus side Clare have an excellent team spirit. They work extremely hard up and down the field, typified by wing forwards Ryan Taylor and Aidan McCarthy, who exhaustively work back with Cathal Malone in a midfield triangle. Aron Shanagher scored the last day to complement his ball-winning capacity. I think they're reliable and there's no question about whether they'll turn up. They're going to play.
If there's any qualms it's that they concede goals. John Conlon hasn't been as dominant at centre back since the Waterford match. Cork are not the opponents you want if there's any suggestion of gaps in that area because that's where the likes of Fitzgibbon, Robbie O'Flynn and Shane Kingston operate and bring a lot of pace to that middle third.They couldn't find a way through Limerick because Declan Hannon, Diarmaid Byrnes and Kyle Hayes are pretty accomplished speed bumps. It's an area where Clare need to be careful.
Limerick’s second-half performance in the Munster final will give Cork a bit of a lift even though it was in all honesty a different Limerick.
Cork have had a couple of weeks’ break. They have a rationale for the semi-final. If Patrick Horgan had scored his frees, they might have come through, but they also have issues of their own.
They looked a bit toothless in attack. They got chances to put Limerick under real pressure and didn’t convert. They could have transitioned from “promising team” to “real contenders” but they didn’t, and Limerick weathered the storm.
Clare aren’t Limerick, of course. Are Clare likely to win the All-Ireland? I don’t think so.
Cork probably have ambitions to get back to that level but I think they’re unfounded. They have greater promise but Clare now have a track record of getting things done, and if last week – the most demanding conditions I ever witnessed at a match; it must have been 30 degrees – hasn’t drained them, I think they’ll get this done as well.
In Thurles, Galway and Waterford come into this match through the last-chance saloon. They were both All-Ireland semi-finalists last year – Waterford went a step farther – and had encouraging league performances even though Liam Cahill’s side have been carrying the burden of losing Tadhg de Búrca in the All-Ireland final.
As compensation they got Shane Bennett back, but their Munster championship was a disaster, the tightness of the final margin not telling the story of Clare’s 22 wides.
The performance in the meantime doesn’t look to have remedied things – allowing that Laois have been awkward opponents in the last two years of qualifiers, running Clare close in 2020 and leaving Waterford to sweat all the way into injury-time last week.
Whether they have been able to park the Clare display fully is questionable given the closeness of that shave.
My misgivings about league form are almost embodied by Galway, who came out of Division 1A as the top team and ranked almost on a par with Limerick and well ahead of the rest. In fact what has happened is that their championship form of last year doesn’t look to have improved and the defeat by Dublin was an eye-opener.
Maybe not enough credit went to Dublin, who even last week, despite being hugely disrupted by Covid, managed to stay competitive with Kilkenny for three-quarters of an hour.
I’m slow to write off Galway in this respect. They may have come into the match over-confident, went for goals to try and end it quickly, and when that didn’t work – and as I said at the time – there’s no stop on the line between over-confidence and panic. That’s about the best spin you can put on it.
Waterford have a great record in this fixture, losing just once (albeit the 2017 All-Ireland final). De Búrca is their only absentee. Conor Prunty started the last day at full back, and Jamie Barron came on, which will strengthen them in the middle of the field.
Up until now Austin Gleeson and Stephen Bennett have been carrying them, but I feel they’re better balanced going into this. If Galway’s defeat was down to over-confidence, they might be able to recover. Do I trust them? No, but after two poor outings there’s even less reason to trust Waterford.