With the first two rounds now complete, the make-up of the business end of the 2019 Clare senior hurling championship is starting to take shape.
We now know our first four quarter-finalists, we know who will meet who in what could be a rip-roaring round three, and we know the four clubs whose focus from here on in will be all about staying in the top tier for 2020. Ballyea and Cratloe are two of those teams who now have to put an extra date in their diaries in their pursuit of the Canon, and for me it was the performances of both those teams that were most disappointing from last weekend’s action.
We have spoken before about how both teams have football commitments to also contend with and I really felt they looked tired and had no energy which has to be a major concern for the next few weeks. For Cratloe, I know they were down two key men in Diarmuid Ryan and Sean Collins but I would have serious issues about the fitness levels of some of their players. I know Michael Hawes is only coming back from injury but he didn’t look fully right, and the likes of Ogie Murphy and Billy Connors, who is a player that I was hugely impressed with last year, just didn’t seem to be fully at the pitch of it.
While Cratloe’s performance has to be a concern, there is serious credit due to Inagh-Kilnamona. We questioned would they take that next step in taking the scalp of a leading contender and while their opponents on the day were poor, they could only go and beat what is front of them and that’s what they did. Their response to conceding that early goal was fantastic in reeling off six unanswered and really always looking in control from there. One slight area that might be troubling Fergal Hegarty is the way they tended to drop in and out of the game at times, but that can be worked on. They have really good forwards and the two danger men inside with Mescall and O’Halloran have all the attributes to hurt teams if they are given the time and space. They were really solid at the back too and Kevin Hehir was key to that in the way he sat back and protected his back-line. They now have momentum on their side and if they can tidy up on those little things we mentioned, they will be a match for anyone.
I was really worried about the performance of Ballyea. The set-up of their team should have been based around what they would have learned from watching Sixmilebridge the first day out against Clarecastle. Ballyea didn’t react to the way the Bridge left Brian Corry and Cathal Malone inside and I thought Jack Browne and Paul Flanagan should have been in there to watch them for any direct ball coming their way. I thought Ballyea had another good defender they could have used in Peter Casey because he has played with the Clare U-20 team this year and in my view is good enough to get on this Ballyea team rather than coming on as a sub. Ballyea really need to look at whether they are playing the right people in the right positions and are they playing their best 15. They have a bit of time now to try and get that right and it will be important for them to get that right.
I liked what the Bridge were doing. They stuck to their game-plan and brought a massive amount of energy to the middle third. Their use of the ball was good and didn’t break down too much, but a lot of that was because Ballyea didn’t pressurise them and get in their faces. It is something we don’t associate with Ballyea because they have always built what they do on everyone working really hard but we didn’t see that last weekend. It allowed Sixmilebridge to play a very effective game and I think they are building up a game plan that could be very difficult for a team that doesn’t go at them high up the field to stop. They are getting better at it and their big players are playing really well and they are in a really good position.
Clonlara’s mix of experience and youth now has them back into the last eight. That mix maybe should have happened before now but maybe the players weren’t there like they have now. They have a great blend and are playing with real pride in the jersey and they look really united. Eire Óg would have thought they had a serious chance but I thought Clonlara’s performance was really good. Clonlara now have a chance to work on looking at what their team is really about and the break will do them good. They can work on perfecting their game plan and the young lads will have taken great confidence from their two wins and there are a lot of positives in that Clonlara camp now.
We wondered could Eire Óg put it back to back after beating Kilmaley and while the performance wasn’t bad, the concession of the two goals probably had an impact in terms of how they would be setting up for the game. They will be happy enough to have stayed in touch with Clonlara and they will really feel that they have another great chance now the next day against Newmarket. They just need to look at how they get the best out of Shane O’Donnell, and for me the key thing is creating space for him in zonal areas that he can exploit and punish teams. He needs to be close to goal to do that because he is easier to close down when they play him further out.
I really think this Crusheen team has come on in leaps and bounds. We mentioned about them being the dark horses and there will no team anxious to draw them in the quarter-final. They have a great mix of youth and experience and the space in Cusack Park is what they will want for that forward line. They are creating a real threat up front and putting up big scores and what I really like about them is that outside of myself, there is very little being spoken about them. They are keeping it nice and tight but they are now a serious threat going forward for any team. Feakle were just lacking that bit of space defensively and the space in Cusack Park found them out a little bit in that respect. They will need to regroup again and I know that they are down two serious players with injuries but they will no doubt start looking back on that saga in 2017 against Clooney-Quin where it went to extra-time before Clooney-Quin pulled away. They will know they have to tighten up defensively and maybe look at putting in a sweeper and they will need to set that plan out now. They are hurling well outside of that and have forwards that can hurt teams but it is at the back where the issues are.
There were no major surprises really in the losers section. The game between Clooney-Quin and Clarecastle was effectively over after 15 minutes and Clarecastle just couldn’t seem to find a way to match up with Peter Duggan. It was the kind of result that Clooney-Quin maybe needed after that Ballyea defeat and it got them back on the winning trail. They put up a big score and they will be in positive mind-frame now for that third round against Feakle. It is worrying times for Clarecastle though and they will have to really improve the next day against Tulla in that relegation game.
Tulla were not too bad against Wolfe Tones in that they battled hard but the game plan Wolfe Tones went with caught them out a bit in the end. They will look at that Clarecastle game as a real opportunity to avoid the relegation final. They are battle hardened and will make it a real dogfight that could go any way.
From Newmarket’s perspective, it was what they needed too in that they played an O’Callaghan’s Mills side who were a bit disorganised and have really gone backwards from last year. Newmarket just needed to get their players back on track and it was a great win for them. They will be back in a good place now for the third round against Eire Óg and they have no sideshows to deal with so can focus solely on that.
As for Kilmaley, they were another team that just needed to get back on track and that is what they did with that huge win over Whitegate. Those early goals set the tone, and while Whitegate battled hard, it just showed what Kilmaley are capable of doing when they hit that form. They will be looking at that Cratloe performance against Inagh-Kilnamona and will see a real opportunity at getting back to a quarter-final spot. They will be back in Cusack Park now and they will feel they are back on track to be serious contenders for the Canon.