IT has been a while since a Clare senior hurling team cut loose in Croke Park. Last Sunday’s display was up there with any in the county’s history. On a par with Clare’s one-point win over Tipperary in the 1997 All-Ireland final? Nearly. It was in that zone. It was probably Clare’s most fluent display in a knock-out championship game in Dublin. The 1997 All-Ireland final was more noted for tension and physicality than lightness of touch but, of course, the Liam McCarthy Cup was on offer to the winners that day.
On the evidence of last Sunday, the current Clare team have classier hurlers than their 1990s predecessors, who mastered hurling with an edge.
Tony Kelly, David McInerney, Podge Collins, Colm Galvin and Conor McGrath play with a sureness of touch and lightening speed, which resembles Jamesie O’Connor at full throttle.
Clare didn’t have to overly mix it physically against Limerick, who were unable to create a match in sufficiently tight confines, which could have led to a more physical confrontation.
That they couldn’t do so was largely down to the speed of Clare’s play, the calm excellence of their decision-making when in possession and the ferocious closing down of the Clare forwards.
Limerick defenders simply were unable to hit decent ball in the general direction of their own forwards, which is why Pat Donnellan had so much of the play to himself. His reading of the game, in the extra defender role, was flawless but was helped by Limerick’s distribution, which was very poor.
If Clare had suddenly produced this extra defender tactic from nowhere, it might be understandable if Limerick were caught cold.
However, Clare deployed the same approach against Galway, when Donnellan closed off the route to Joe Canning. It’s not as if Limerick didn’t know this could happen.
Before last weekend’s game, Limerick manager John Allen spoke at length about the seventh-defender scenario.
“You had a situation against Galway where Clare played a sweeper and Galway never seemed to use their loose man, in their half-back line, properly. You had Podge Collins dictating the way the play went and yet you had a Galway back loose.
“It didn’t make sense to me. We have discussed that often enough with the players. I think they know what to do now if a Clare corner-forward comes out to midfield or if they try to isolate Darach Honan at full-forward,” Allen said.
He made sense in his pre-match interviews but when it counted, Limerick played into Clare’s hands, allowing them to dictate from the second it struck 3.30pm. Presumably Cork won’t be so naïve on September 8, if Clare opt to go down the same route.
So what should Limerick have done to counteract Clare? Ideally they could have put over a few early long-range points, which may have led to Clare having to bring Donnellan outfield. Or perhaps they should have moved David Breen inside, forcing Donnellan to pick him up and providing Limerick with a Darach Honan-type mobile target man.
Cork will hardly be as naïve but, of course, Clare may not adopt the same tactical approach next month.
Aside from securing the huge achievement of reaching an All-Ireland final, under Davy Fitzgerald’s management, Clare have revolutionised the tactical approach to hurling.
Most traditionalists like it simple and love the sight of a ball being driven 90 yards downfield. While wing-forwards have been dropping deep for teams like Kilkenny, Clare have upped the tactical ante by playing seven defenders, at most five forwards and relying on support play to generate an opportunity to deliver decent attacking ball.
Cork played a similar game under Donal O’Grady but Clare have taken it a few steps further.
The fitness and youth of the Clare team ensures that when the support play approach works, it’s exceptionally difficult to defend against. Essentially, Clare are mixing the short and long games. Their counter-attacking excellence is suited to the spaciousness of Croke Park.
Against Limerick, Dillon, McInerney, Galvin, Collins and the exceptional Tony Kelly lit up Croke Park. To this day, many Clare people question Davy Fitzgerald and his approach but results speak louder than perception.
Clare delivered superbly against Limerick and have every possible motivation to put one over Cork. The Rebels, however, are renowned for their innate cuteness. They will be ready for Clare and stage fright won’t be a factor.
Before that, though, it’s only right to acknowledge that Clare’s display against Limerick was absolutely magnificent. The priority for them this week and next is to create the environment that will bring the best from their players on September 8.
If they come close to the level achieved last weekend, the first all Munster All-Ireland final since 1997 will result in an end to Clare’s 16-year wait for another look at Liam McCarthy.