Waterford have momentum to deny Clare in decider

Gaelic Games weekend previews: Cork look to have edge in All-Ireland Under-21 FC final

Waterford’s Shane Bennett, with Patrick Curran, has been playing a more prominent for the county. Photograph: Inpho

Waterford’s Shane Bennett, with Patrick Curran, has been playing a more prominent for the county. Photograph: Inpho

 

Saturday

All-Ireland Under-21 FC final Cork v Mayo, Cusack Park Ennis, 6.0 – A high-quality championship reaches its climax in Ennis with the meeting of the All-Ireland minor champions of three years ago, Mayo, and less obviously a Cork side that didn’t even make the Munster final that year – although they did actually beat Kerry earlier in that year’s championship.

Mayo have walked a tightrope to get to this stage. Roscommon looked more likely winners for most of the Connacht final and in the semi-final their good start was turned over by Dublin and they had to find a response with the momentum of the match going against them.

Neither side is defensively orientated and although Cork’s half backs have arguably been the best line in the team, the full forwards carry the most threat with this year’s senior Peter Kelleher at full forward and Brian Hurley’s brother Michael in an impressive attack that was the key to defeating Monaghan in the semi-final.

“Our forwards managed to kick us through in the end,” said team captain Stephen Cronin. “Our forwards were outstanding, in other parts we maybe weren’t. The likes of Michael Hurley, Peter Kelleher, they were very good and I suppose we have them to thank for it.”

One of the reasons for their impact has been the excellent form at centrefield of Seán White and he will need to maintain it because much of Mayo’s strength is based around the middle of the field where team captain Stephen Coen and Matthew Ruane dictate much of what happens for the team.

Senior player Diarmuid O’Connor has been the driving force of the team however and he played very effectively against Dublin, constantly running at the defence from centre forward, drawing frees and occupying defenders before setting up other attackers.

Cork are favourites but it promises to be close and to date Mayo have shown a remarkable ability to survive those. The county’s difficulties in winning All-Irelands are well documented but Coen answered the question well when it was raised.

“I think every championship is a new journey. It’s important that we focus on our own and focusing on our own game is all that we’re doing. We’re not focusing on any other team. We’re trying to write our own history. We’re not really concerned about what’s happened before at any age-level, because every year is different. It’s just about trying to focus on the performance this weekend.”

That performance can emulate the success of 10 years ago when the counties also met in this final.

Sunday

Allianz Hurling League Division One final

Waterford v Clare, Thurles, 3.30 – The semi-finals of the competition gave notice that these two teams have continued their trajectory towards the top of the game. Clare of course have already been there and the disappointing flatness of the intervening years since 2013 appear to have been addressed with a 100 per cent run through Division One B and wins over Tipperary and Kilkenny in the knock-out stages.

Manager David Fitzgerald has earned plaudits for bringing in heavyweight personalities Dónal Cusack and Paul Kinnerk to bolster his back-room team and the effect has been noticeable. To even the casual observer the players look more engaged and as if they’re enjoying that engagement. They brought an intensity to the defeat of Kilkenny that had TJ Reid contrasting Clare’s ‘championship form’ with Kilkenny’s ‘league form’ but other aspects of the performance were encouragingly reminiscent of the team at or near its best - a level unseen for a couple of years whether it was John Conlon’s ball winning which created havoc or Colm Galvin’s sniping runs and point taking precision as well as Tony Kelly’s movement and threat on his return from injury.

The problem for Clare this weekend is that they aren’t at full strength, David McInerney, their best defender until injury struck, is still out as is Conor Ryan and there is still ambiguity over whether Shane O’Donnell will be fit. More bad news followed with Conlon’s injury ruling him out.

Complicating matters for both teams is the imminence of their championship encounter in the Munster semi-final in five weeks.

It’s hard though to think of a reason for either not to have a serious cut at this –- Clare haven’t won a league since 1978 and holders Waterford wouldn’t mind inflicting their opponents’ first defeat of the year as a prelude to the championship. A year ago Waterford beat Cork in the league final and repeated the dose in the championship without undue ceremony.

Waterford have also had a good campaign. In a way the most impressive gauge of the improvement in panel depth was the draw against Galway, achieved despite 10 changes to the team. Derek McGrath’s first-choice side has been able to bring through Patrick Curran and Shane Bennett into more prominent roles, enhancing the attack while the structure and work rate that make the team hard to break down has still been evident and during the week Austin Gleeson even volunteered that he was hoping to improve his shot selection!

Were there to be congestion charges levied here, more revenue would be raised than by the City of London but there are such good shooters on either side that the score-line should keep ticking over.

It has been remarked in both counties that Clare have maintained the relationship with Waterford over the years in a vice-like grip. In the context of sudden-death matches at all levels there’s an argument that you have to go back more than 20 years for a Waterford victory - allowing that the 2004 trouncing in Thurles still afforded Clare a route back through the qualifiers.

Currently Waterford have been building steadily over the past season and a half. They are close to full strength although the belief seems to be that Maurice Shanahan won’t be fit and they have looked impressive all season. So have Clare but they still have things to finalise before June. Waterford are ready to go.

Leinster SHC preliminary group

Kerry v Carlow, Austin Stack Park, Tralee, 1.0 – An historic day for Kerry, as the county takes part in the Leinster champion ship for the first time. Ciarán Carey’s side had a sensational league campaign, winning two matches in Division One B and looking the part. Carlow had disappointment in losing their divisional final and having been operating at a lower level are unlikely to be able to stand in the home side’s way.

Westmeath v Offaly, TEG Cusack Park, Mullingar, 3.0 – Westmeath finished the season well even if they couldn’t manage promotion in the play-off against Laois. They have home advantage and the remarkable defensive record of not having conceded a goal in seven matches but Eamonn Kelly’s Offaly have to respond to the dismal home defeat by Kerry and although carrying a number of injuries they should be able to do that.

Connacht SFC preliminary round

New York v Roscommon, Gaelic Park, 4.0 (local) [9.0, Irish time, Live TG4] – A hugely important championship season begins for Roscommon with a trip to New York where the county has lined up a major fund raising exercise for development projects at home.

This is always a random challenge for the Connacht counties who in rotation travel to the US for this match every five years.

On the same date in 2011 Roscommon had an easy 16-point win and after a fine season copper-fastening their place in Division One the county will expect to progress smoothly to a meeting with Leitrim.

The Exiles’ team will feature some familiar faces though with two high-profile Galway players - footballer Johnny Duane and last year’s All-Ireland hurling finalist Johnny Glynn - in the New York squad, Duane as captain.

There is a sprinkling of other well know players but Roscommon’s cohesion after reaching the league semi-finals places them at a considerable advantage to their opponents and the outcome should be along expected lines.

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