Regardless of the result on Sunday, Tipperary All-Star John McGrath believes Clare have the potential to win another All-Ireland. He spoke to Dan Danaher.
Tipperary All-Star John McGrath has experienced the ecstasy of victory and the agony of defeat in major games this year.
From the high of lifting the Fitzgibbon Cup aloft in February as University of Limerick captain, the Loughmore-Castleiney clubman endured the low of a two-point defeat to Clare in Thurles on June 10.
Tipperary may have been one of the favourites for the Liam MacCarthy this year but Clare’s thrilling victory dumped the Premier County out of the Munster and All-Ireland series and ended the inter-county season for the 2012 All-Ireland medal winner.
“It was a massive honour to be chosen as UL captain this year” he said, considering hurlers like Clare star forward, Tony Kelly and Tipperary ace marksman Jason Forde were also members of this team.
“UL had a lot of inter-county players on the bench who didn’t make the starting team, so it was a massive honour for me to be chosen as captain.
“The standards in the Fitzgibbon Cup is very high. It is probably better than U-21 and is not far off senior inter-county. If you look at the Mary Immaculate teams that won the Fitzgibbon Cup in recent years, they would probably get on well against inter-county teams. The Fitzgibbon Cup is great preparation early in the year and it really sets you up playing inter-county,” he noted.
In view of the way Clare have finished so strongly in the new round-robin series, coming from seven points down to beat Tipperary by two and hammering Limerick by 11 points, McGrath believes this momentum should help them to shade the final.
He doesn’t believe Cork’s victory over Clare in the first round is hugely significant and notes last year’s Munster final defeat will provide huge motivation for the Banner man to turn the tables on Sunday.
Welcoming the introduction of four games for the provincial championship this year, he believes Tipperary were “a bit unlucky to play so many games in successive weeks”. He said they could have benefited from a break to recharge their batteries.
The UL captain is well placed to assess the strength of some of Clare’s key players, after playing with Conor Cleary, David Fizgerald, Tony Kelly and Ian Galvin on the side that defeated DCU by 2-21 to 2-15 in the Fitzgibbon Cup final back in spring.
The 2016 All-Ireland senior hurling winner admits there are very few sports in the world where you can play alongside a player in a college team one week and play against them at inter-county level the next.
“Players realise when a game starts that everyone is trying to do their best for the team and anything that happens is left out in the field and you have a laugh when you meet players afterwards.
“It is one of the great things about the GAA; you can play with a player one week and against him the next week and there is no love lost,” he explained.
Having joined the UL team this year, McGrath noted Conor Cleary went in at full-back where he really shored up their defence and gave them a strong platform to build on.
“Any ball that went into the full-back line, you were sure it would come back out again. Conor is very comfortable on the ball, he is strong and is very well able to read the game.
“He is a great player to have, whether it is centre or full-back. He is a good leader and a very dependable guy, you know what you are going to get with Conor. Whoever is marking Conor will have a tough 70 minutes,” he outlined.
If a forward is marking Clare defender David Fitzgerald, McGrath believes the danger is he could outscore them with long-range points at the other end, as he is very athletic and gets up and down the field very quickly.
He says teams are so aware of Tony Kelly’s ability that they set up to counteract him. “You can’t take your eye off Tony Kelly for a minute. He can score points from anywhere, left or right. Tony has great pace when he gets on the ball and is very good to take on players and shoots points.
“If Tony shoots a few points early on, it will give him great confidence and the Cork players will have to try and tighten up on him and this will open up space for other forwards.
“Ian Galvin is having a good breakthrough year. He hurled very well for UL. He works very hard, always got a few scores and is really a good option for Clare,” he continued.
Looking back on the new round-robin series, he believes Cork have been just about the best team in terms of results.
Stating they can never be written off, he says they will want to improve on last year after losing the All-Ireland semi-final. Winning the Munster final would be an ideal statement of intent of their wish to win the Liam MacCarthy Cup be believes.
Like Clare, he says Cork like to play the short game and have players with great pace and a great mix of youth and experience.
If the Clare fowards can stop defenders from sending in accurate passes from midfield into their full-forward line, it would make a major difference.
He says Mark Coleman and Darragh Fitzgibbon are the two key players translating defence from attack while, up front, Pat Horgan and Seamus Harnedy are very dangerous, while Shane Kingston and Luke Meade also need to be watched.
“All the Clare players are very comfortable with the ball, no matter what area of the field they are in. Over the last four or five years, Clare’s underage teams have played the ball short. Their first touch has to be good or else it will break down.
“Clare have some very skilful players and they are being coached and encouraged to play that way. They are so used to it at this stage that it is like second nature to them. Players have to be smart on the ball and pick the right option.”
In view of the question marks surrounding the Clare team at the start of the championship, McGrath believes they have showed what they are capable of in recent weeks, with three successive wins over Waterford, Tipperary and Limerick.
Regardless of the Munster final result, he believes Clare have the potential to win a second All-Ireland in five years, after their 2013 all conquering run.
“Clare are always dangerous. They have huge pace and athleticism throughout the team, which is a big asset with the way the game has gone.
“Clave have probably been a bit inconsistent at times but they have shown over the last three games that they are well capable of winning games,” he continued.
“Clare still have a few experienced players from their All-Ireland win in 2013 that are involved, as well as their younger players, which will help them,” he concludes.