Galway's metronomic attack will be just too much for methodical Clare
All-Ireland SHC semi-final: Galway v Clare (today, 5pm, Croke Park, live on RTÉ2 and Sky Sports Arena)
EVEN though you’ve heard it time and again, you still have to check. Has it really been five years since this Clare team was in Croke Park?
Their 2013 All-Ireland success did change the face of hurling in some ways, but the traditional names and faces have simply adapted rather than disappeared.
And Clare found that they couldn’t re-adapt themselves. Couldn’t establish their identity. Couldn’t find their big men on big days. Couldn’t break their 20-year wait for a Munster title. Couldn’t get over the quarter-final.
They look a bit closer to solving a couple of those problems now. Jamie Shanahan is operating as the free-man, and their defence around him is settled. Their attack has the focal point of John Conlon, hurling up a storm all summer long, and Tony Kelly is in the best form he’s been in since 2015.
In fits and starts, their attack has sparkled. 2-27 against Waterford, 1-23 in Thurles and 0-26 in a comfortable (albeit asterisked) win over Limerick, 3-19 in the Munster final and 0-27 against Wexford – that’s some serious scoring.
And yet. For all of 57 minutes in the provincial decider, they had only three scorers. John Conlon, David Reidy and Peter Duggan accounted for their entire tally in that time, and that became a problem after half-time.
They threatened to run away with the game for 34 minutes, with Conlon dancing gleefully around the helpless Damien Cahalane, helping them into an eight-point lead. Cork’s 1-1 blast before half-time was hugely significant, but so too the move of Colm Spillane across to full-back.
He helped quieten Conlon, but he got no service either. Cork’s workrate upped and combined with that slash they put through the arrears just before half-time, they did unto Clare as had been done unto them.
Their recovery win over Wexford was rarely anything except comfortable, but it was imperfect in almost every area, perhaps not helped by the limpness of the entire occasion in an 80 per cent empty Páirc Úi Chaoimh.
“If they stay doing that stupid stuff of hitting the ball long all the time, they won’t win anything,” said Fitz.
“If you hit it long all the time against Galway, you are going to be beaten. They need to work the ball they way they were working it today.
“When the boys run the ball, play it short and vary the game, they have a chance. Just give the boys a chance and stop looking for them to hit it long all the time. Let them do what suits them. It is crucial the Clare public let that team play.”
Galway won’t let them play the way they want to play. That’ll go right down to the nuts and bolts of their setup. Jamie Shanahan has been especially effective as the spare man, but that will make Micheál Donoghue all the more determined not to allow Clare that luxury.
They might be glad of the break from looking at Tipperary’s mugs at this stage after three consecutive semi-finals, but if they taught us anything, it’s that Galway are quite comfortable doing man-for-man against the very best.
Daithi Burke has largely had the upper hand on Seamus Callanan in those meetings, though if rumours of an ankle injury prove to have a base, it would create a very different outlook on proceedings.
As it stands, he’ll pick up Conlon, while Johnny Hanbury will face a different challenge from either Podge Collins or Shane O’Donnell than he had in dominating Walter Walsh in the Leinster final replay.
If anything showed their defensive mettle, that was it. Brian Cody clearly shifted Walsh into the corner to try and either drag Burke out of the middle or isolate the big forward against what he would have thought a weaker link. It didn’t happen.
Clare tried a similar tactic in the Munster final, with better success. Tony Kelly went to the wing and took Eoin Cadogan with him, allowing David Reidy to attack the relatively inexperienced Mark Coleman in the centre. Reidy hit 1-2.
There’s a fair chance they might attempt the same this evening, given the rock-like presence that Gearoid McInerney gives to the All-Ireland champions at centre-back.
O’Donnell and Collins will both remove themselves from the edge of the square as per the norm, but as the second half of the provincial final showed, when Conlon gets closed down, the entire plan can fall at his feet.
Despite those impressive scoring tallies they’ve managed to accrue, Clare have not had the depth of regular scorers that could match Galway. Duggan, Kelly and Conlon have accounted for 4-98 between them, with Duggan’s mostly from frees.
Joe Canning has hit 1-48 himself for Galway, and that despite missing the Dublin game, but it’s the open play potential of Conor Whelan (2-13), Conor Cooney (0-14), Joseph Cooney (1-11) and Cathal Mannion (0-13) that makes them such a nightmare to play against.
Throw in Jonathan Glynn now, whose monstrous presence was a new twist on it on the edge of the square, and you have a truly fearsome attack that doesn’t rely on others for help.
Galway’s scoring tallies from midfield back are minimal. They might mix up the play, but you’ll seldom see them have loose shots from behind the middle. They have a band of the best swordsmen, and they intend to use them.
Clare, in a sense, remind you of the Waterford side that Galway beat in last year’s decider. And one of the key factors was that, because they want to play a more orthodox style, the Tribe’s scores will always come that bit more naturally.
If John Conlon can get the better of Daithi Burke and create a goal, perhaps even two, it’s a different challenge. Raising green flags is something this Galway side still struggles to do, yet hardly needs to.
They have more human metronomes than anyone else. Clare will get under their skin and cause them moments of angst, but now that they’ve the taste of winning, it’s hard to envisage Galway dining on anything else.
Galway’s path to the semi-final
Offaly 2-15 Galway 5-18
Galway 1-22 Kilkenny 2-11
Wexford 0-17 Galway 1-23
Galway 0-26 Dublin 2-19
Final: Galway 0-18 Kilkenny 0-18
Replay: Galway 1-28 Kilkenny 3-15
Clare’s path to the semi-final
Cork 2-23 Clare 1-21
Clare 2-27 Waterford 2-18
Tipperary 1-21 Clare 1-23
Clare 0-26 Limerick 0-15
Final: Cork 2-24 Clare 3-19
All-Ireland SHC quarter-final: Clare 0-27 Wexford 1-17