Kilkenny will throw the lot at Clare, but I’m going for the banner – just
Looking ahead to next Saturday’s All-Ireland hurling semi-final, Clare – who has finished her season so far – is rated around four points better than Kilkenny.
But they face the Cats in a unique encounter, which Kilkenny has spent a month focusing on.
No one uses the gap between games better than Brian Cody, who has attended Clare’s last two games, and you can be sure he has picked up a lot of it.
A quick anecdote from my own playing days. One year Kilkenny beat Tipp in the semi-finals on a Sunday. The next morning a friend of mine was at Langtons and he phoned me to say that Cody (below) and his then-managers Martin Fogarty and Mick Dempsey were meeting there from 9am-12.30pm .
By lunchtime, Kilkenny had their plan for the final and four weeks to rehearse it, polish it, at Nowlan Park. They will have done the same for it.
Cody will have seen how two big men, Lee Chin and Conor McDonald, troubled Clare’s back line and their goalie. He will have seen how the influence of Tony Kelly has been neutralized.
Players for these jobs will no doubt have been contacted and trained for their roles in 15-man practice matches.
Players are not stupid. They crave a credible plan. When they see the outline of it developing, how it works in training, they start to believe it will work on the big day.
Kilkenny did it against Limerick in the 2019 semi-finals, beating them in the first half and then doing enough to win. No one has pulled off the same trick since.
Add to that Cody’s ability to instill team spirit and his core belief in competing for everything, while keeping everyone grounded, and we see where Clare is headed for come Saturday.
Clare must have a plan for when Walter Walsh and TJ Reid land at the edge of the square. In Brian Lohan, they have the right man in the right place – in many ways, a Cody-like mind.
Who is free if Kelly is on a double team? And how to use the ball in this situation? These are questions they need to answer faster than the 55 minutes it took to figure it out in the quarter-finals.
Clare has made the championship to date, but her worst showing was her last. They should have known what was coming against Wexford and figured it out at half-time.
They finally got there, but if Kilkenny opens a lead with 15 minutes remaining, they won’t let go.
What neither side can control is the version of the rules implemented by the Croke Park Umpires Committee. In the Leinster and Munster finals – on the same day, in the same sport and in the same competition – James Owens enforced “league rules”, blasting anything that moved, while John Keenan enforced the “All Ireland Final Rules” and let it flow, resulting in a classic.
Everyone loved Keenan’s final performance at Munster and his contribution to a classic game in tough conditions. Except the few people who control how the game is to be played – the evaluators and the retired umpires’ house at Croke Park.
They want James Owens’ 35 frees-a-game, stop-start contest. David Gough, speaking at a recent event, explained that he follows the rules and when it comes to his decisions, no one else’s opinion counts.
Success therefore lies in applying the rules to the letter of the law. Great, but then what happens is you get teams that finish with 11 players, like the Tyrone-Armagh football clash, and that becomes the talking point. There’s a real disconnect between this small group of powerful reviewers and how everyone wants to see the game.
In too many matches this year, the referee’s interpretation has proven to be a deciding factor. The balance needs to shift back to focus on what makes hurling great, rather than this we-enforce-the-rules mantra.
But back to the key question: who will advance next Saturday?
Clare and Kilkenny both set off hoping to win. Clare’s form in 2022 is better, but Kilkenny’s semi-final preparation is better. The little things will make the difference.
Can Clare get some more on the dash of Shane O’Donnell, Peter Duggan, Ryan Taylor? Will Clare’s supporters massively outnumber Kilkenny’s? Who will convert more of his frees: Tony or TJ?
I think Kilkenny will perform well, but Clare has more players who move well.
That’s why I take the banner to win, but only just.
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