WHO dreamed up, implemented and then didn’t change Clare’s puck-out strategy? Why did Clare seemingly set out to stop Cork and neglect to concentrate more fully on playing their own game? Why was Tony Kelly left on penalties and why was Oisin O’Brien started on Alan Cadogan, when surely Seadna Morey was the man for that job?
These and a few other questions abounded on Sunday evening and Monday morning as the dwindling Clare hurling public digested what had just happened in Thurles. Since winning the 2013 All-Ireland title, Clare have beaten Limerick and Laois (both twice) and Offaly in championship hurling. Any time they have met a top tier county, including Cork, Galway or Waterford, they have not cut it.
Repeatedly this panel have shown that they are not as good as people in this county thought. Their 2013 win must now be consigned to the ‘lucky, flash in the pan’ category and while their All-Ireland medal cannot be taken away from them, these players have not backed it up, even if they won the 2016 league. Tactically, Clare definitely confused themselves on Sunday but players must take most of the responsibility. They did not deliver, nor have they in the last four seasons.
That said, Clare’s reluctance to alter their puck-out strategy was inexplicable. It did largely dilute Conor Lehane’s influence in that he wasn’t showing as often for puck-outs but instead Anthony Nash was able to bang a 40 yard puck-out to Damien Cahalane for example and from there he was able to change the direction of play, with a diagonal ball, and open up Clare.
Cork scored 0-7 of their total directly from puck-outs. If Clare had dropped one player back and left two inside forwards to split the three-man Cork full-back line, that would have forced Nash to either take short, risky puck-outs or, more likely, go long. If management really believed in their players, they would allow them to go virtually man-on-man on the puck-outs and cease the over-analysis.
Of course a team needs to have a clear tactical approach but equally it needs to be able to adapt mid-stream if the initial approach isn’t working. Clare either didn’t see what the problem was, or couldn’t sort it out.
Among those who did reasonably well were Morey and David McInerney, while Tony Kelly was much more involved than he was against Limerick. Cathal Malone also had a good first half but faded thereafter. Conor Cleary hit plenty ball but gave away several frees, although Lehane was not an obvious influence.
However, Andrew Fahy conceded a soft goal, while Pat O’Connor, Oisin O’Brien, Podge Collins, Aron Shanagher, David Fitzgerald and Shane O’Donnell were peripheral figures. John Conlon was not as involved as needed either but he did hit 0-2 from play and set up Conor McGrath for his goal. Most of the ball hit towards McGrath needed him to speed towards the sideline, which suited Cork perfectly. If you’re a corner-back, where better to see McGrath doing most of his hurling but under either stand in Thurles?
Clare could not match Cork for two simple ingredients – work rate and movement. While Cork hounded and never stopped moving, particularly in attack, Clare were stuck in a tactical straight jacket. Even when they won Cork puck-outs, they were still two men short up front, as both wing-forwards had dropped back to supplement the half-back line.
When it became clear that it wasn’t working for the likes of Shanagher or Collins in attack, surely Aaron Cunningham or Peter Duggan should have been brought on earlier? Duggan was only on for eight minutes but immediately managed to win a puck-out and a pointed free, while Cunningham has previously shown that he can impact from the bench.
It was also inexplicable to see Gearóid O’Connell dropped from the 26, having started against Limerick, while Jack Browne and Paul Flanagan were also unable to make the match-day panel. Patrick Donnellan and Brendan Bugler owe Clare hurling nothing but unless they are going to be almost certainly introduced, it would make more sense to have the Ballyea players on the bench, at the very least. Ironically, Bugler could have brought a bit of badly-needed aggression to the Clare cause had he been used.
Clare will only compete with Tipperary if they throw off the safety nets and hurl on instinct. While evidence is mounting that they are either vastly over-rated or are serial under-achievers, their last chance to redeem themselves is looming. Can they turn this around?
It looks unlikely but knock Tipperary out and this summer may yet extend into autumn. Everyone in Clare will be singing a vastly more upbeat tune if that happens.
By Peter O’Connell