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DARACH HONAN: Clare to beat Wexford in tight encounter

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*Shane O’Donnell’s move to centre-forward has added increased workrate to our middle third. Photograph: Gerard O’Neill

Stopping Wexford’s running game is key to Clare securing a win in Saturday’s All-Ireland SHC knockout qualifier tie according to The Clare Echo’s columnist Darach Honan.

Clare recorded a good victory under trying circumstances in Nowlan Park at the weekend. Despite winning the game and progressing to the next round, much of the media reaction was negative. Although the game was close, there were lots of positives to be taken from a hard-fought win.

Clare started well; our use of the ball was markedly better than vs Limerick. Laois withdrew attackers leaving Paul Flanagan free early in the game, allowing him to distribute the ball well when in possession and act as the catalyst for Clare attacks. Where against Limerick we were one dimensional in delivering long ball, this time out we worked the ball through the lines and created some good scores. The early signs here were good, but once we were reduced to 14, our use of possession did become more panicked and we didn’t work it through the lines as well.

Laois’s early goal kept them in the game and highlighted a recurring weakness in our defence. When Aaron Dunphy collected the ball 50 yards from goal after a good block down, there appeared to be little danger. The way in which our defence collapsed in the face of his direct running will be a huge cause for concern. Clare had six covering defenders to Laois’s three forwards at this point, but they were still able to carve a hole through the middle and finish with a goal. Clare’s half back line was extremely vulnerable when Laois ran at them, and this was only exacerbated by the loss of David McInerny to a red card early in the game.

Despite being reduced to 14, Clare scored a respectable 27 points. Tony Kelly again led the charge on this front but there was some more help this time out. Aron Shanagher produced a massive performance at full forward while shipping some serious punishment from the Laois backs. Shanagher is a beast of a man, and he won hard ball time and time again despite being outnumbered. His shooting was excellent as he converted tough chances. It was a shame that Tony had to be brought out to midfield in McInerny’s absence, as if Clare could find a way for Tony to play off Shanagher’s shoulder it could be an extremely potent partnership.

After the Limerick game, Clare knew they needed to improve. One problem area vs Limerick was our half forward line. Brian changed up the personnel here, and to good effect.

Cathal Malone’s positioning at half forward also strengthened our attack. Cathal is becoming a real leader on this team and has produced two solid performances in the championship this year. Malone played deep helping in defence. However, he kept the Laois defence honest as he had the required fitness levels to get up and down the field, remaining a threat in attack.

It was interesting also to note the deployment of Shane O’Donnell at centre forward. This positioning could be what is needed to get Shane into games and make him an integral part of the attack. He is willing to drop into midfield and work to turn over possession. He is also quite intelligent on the ball. He won some frees and linked the play well. He will need to add a scoring threat to be fully effective in the centre forward role. The opportunities did arise, and I am sure it is something he will work on in training this week.

Clare did what was required vs a Laois team that has received much praise for the progress they have made over the last few seasons. They did this while undermanned for most of the game and after being hit for three goals without converting their own chances. While there is room for improvement, the management and players will be happy with that.

Similarly, both Wexford and Clare will be happy with the draw that was made on Monday morning. Wexford are Leinster champions but were very poor in their first outing versus Galway this year. After Clare’s opening games they have come in for much criticism, so both sides will see this as a game they can win. Everyone knows what to expect when coming up against Wexford and the sweeper system, as such, it will be a test of Brian Lohan and how well he can prepare his team for it.

Wexford are successful when they crowd the middle, dominate possession in midfield and transitions quickly from defence to attack. They have good athletes throughout the field, and their direct running could cause Clare problems. As we noted, the porousness of our half backline was an issue against Laois and Wexford will look to exploit this also.

It is a huge blow for Clare that David McInerney will be unavailable for this weekend’s clash. The red card seemed to be for an innocuous incident, so it is hard to understand how it was not overturned. He is a vital cog in this team and his physicality will be badly missed.

Hopefully, Jack Brown will return after his injury kept him out of last week’s game. I would put Jack straight in at centre back if available. It was encouraging also to see Shane Golden enter the fray vs Laois. His physicality in the middle of the park could be a huge boost if Lohan chooses to play him. Similarly, David Fitzgerald, who did not feature vs Laois could be brought into good effect.

If you can stop the Wexford running game, you go a long way towards beating them. Their forward formations leave them isolated as they are outnumbered up there. It makes it difficult for them to hit direct ball and as a result they can be one dimensional. However, such is the class of the athlete available to them in Wexford, stopping their running game is easier said than done.

In attack, Clare will have to be smart with how we set up and subsequently how we use the ball. With the presence of the Wexford sweeper it is important to spread their defence as much as possible. Delivery must be kept outside the sweeper where one on ones can be created. Blind clearances down the middle are to be avoided at all costs as it brings Kevin Foley into the game and plays into their hands.

This clash is one that both teams, managers and the public will have hoped for. It should make for an interesting fixture. Despite missing some key players, this is a game that Clare can win. If they can progress here it opens huge possibilities for this team and would be a huge boost after plenty of negative coverage in recent weeks. I fancy Clare to win a tight encounter.

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