*Ian Galvin takes on Paddy Deegan. Photograph: Gerard O’Neill
For all the hurling talent and underage success, we have in Clare over the last decade, it is amazing that this is weekend will be only our third All Ireland semi-final since 2006.
It is a damning stat and a reflection of a failure to utilise the talent available to us as well as a stark reminder that when these opportunities come around, you have the make them count. Brian Lohan and the players will be keenly aware of that, and we should expect a big performance from them this weekend.
Clare were sub-par versus Wexford in the quarter final but did enough to get a result despite suffering from a Munster Final hangover. There will be no such excuses this weekend as energy and intensity in abundance will be required to overcome the cats. Kilkenny were not particularly impressive in Leinster this year but still find themselves only two wins away from capturing another All-Ireland.
They looked unperturbed by Galway’s challenge in the Leinster Final, a game which they never looked like losing. The standard of this game was in stark contrast to the Munster Final which had all the thrills and spills and the inevitable conclusion came that the Munster teams were far ahead of their Leinster counterparts. But hurling is a funny game and sometimes we get carried away with the entertainment value. An alternative reading of that clash is that Kilkenny managed to play that game on their terms from start to finish. They slowed it down, nailed their frees and took the sting out of the opposition. Clare can’t allow this to be repeated and will favour a higher tempo game with more free flowing hurling.
Outside of Ian Galvin and the players who were introduced from the bench, Clare looked a little toothless on the inside line v Wexford. We haven’t carried a goal threat in recent games and putting our inside forwards in position to threaten the goal will be a pressing issue this weekend.
Kilkenny on the other hand have a potent inside line and if TJ Reid and Cody are played together inside it could be a dangerous prospect for our full backline. I’d expect TJ to be picked up by Conor Cleary, Conor is having a superb year thus far. He is a very tight marker and is physically strong, however, TJ is a different type of player to what he has marked thus far and if he can win primary possession from direct ball, Eoin Cody could be presented with goal chances by playing off him.
Clare’s superiority will be in the middle third. The vast expanses of Croke Park will suit Tony Kelly, Ryan Taylor et al to find space and run their respective markers ragged. For the first time this year, our support play against Wexford was poor. Many times, Clare players in possession passed out teammates and no support run came. Clare will need to get back to what they did well in their opening games of constantly giving the man in possession an option and creating overlaps. I would expect that Clare have physically recovered enough now to be in a position to do that this weekend. In order to combat this Kilkenny will set up very defensively initially and try to close down space.
In our last game, Wexford played their half forward line very deep and worked the ball through the lines and managed to bypass Clare defenders. This was particularly effective as Clare forwards did not bring the same energy to that match as has been associated with them this year and Wexford did use the ball intelligently. Kilkenny will do something similar, in recent years they have made a lot of progress in their use of the ball and have moved away from relying solely on long ball.
If they do overuse the long ball the Clare half backline can sit and pick up the breaks, however, if they are as effective as Wexford were in utilising the short game, they could cause Clare some problems here. In the quarter final we waited too long to push up on the Wexford players, Clare won’t want to give Kilkenny a similar foothold in the game and may push up earlier with the proviso being that we hold a covering defender in front of our full backline.
Most people are expecting, and probably hoping for another clash between Clare and Limerick in the All Ireland Final. Limerick’s semi final will be a little more straight forward in that they will win at their ease. Clare and Kilkenny are much more even in ability, and it will be a huge test for Clare to get over them. However, led by a superiority in the middle third, I think Clare will have enough to get back to an All-Ireland final.