Friday, July 25, 2008

Who fears to compare to '98!

One of the most abused phrases in the G.A.A is that a a team is on its last chance. Beloved of the cliche brigade its a cast iron maxim, that as often as not tends to fall around the ears of those who preach it. Armagh tended to fall victim to its use in football; and yet here we are in 2008 with half of their All-Ireland winning team gone by the wayside and they remain perennial contenders. Funnily enough the Cork hurlers look more likely unwilling recipients of the tag. Sated slightly by the garnering of two hurling championships, they looked earlier in the season to be between a rock and the hard place of finding a new full back and other reinforcements. This side more than perhaps any other in the recent history of the game, forged as it was in the white heat of labour unrest in the winter of discontent five and a half years ago, has a unique Muskateeresque unity amongst its charges. Thus perhaps it was not surprising in retrospect that the infusion of new blood against Tipperary did not have the desired effect, akin to a body rejecting the wrong blood type. The convalescent ward that was the qualifier against Dublin didn't indicate that a complete recovery was in the offing, with only John Gardiner coming up to former scratch. This column hasn't anything particularly original to add to much of what has been written about their wondrous second half defiance on Donal Og Cusacks behalf last Saturday. Suffice it to say that Clare will hope that Corks championship graph in 2007/08 will continue to mirror their own of 1998/99, when the team was on occasion driven to fury by the temerity of other sides and disciplinary bodies, but couldn't sustain the ire over a whole season. This rebel collection has dazzled us with their feats in the past, not the least of which was winning titles with meagre enough resources of loaves and fishes in the forward line. But to produce another top notch display within a week of fighting for their lives on their backs, would match anything elicited in mid decade. It could be though that they don't need to hit those heights. It also shouldn't be forgotten just what important additions Shane O'Neill and Cathal Naughton have been to the package. To O'Neill's left Diarmuid O'Sullivan has been to the surprise of many restored to his full back berth. Considering he appeared unfit inside ten minutes of the Munster semi-final, the Cork managements loyalty to the Cloyne man seems almost touching. Yet with Tony Griffin seemingly afflicted by a combination of rustiness and dodgy hamstrings it could be Clare haven't the ammunition to expose O'Sullivan.

Having said that Clare will be fielding their strongest side of the summer. Mike McNamara having had to replace Conor Plunkett and Mark Flaharty two games in a row has eschewed the loyalty to both which has been a trademark until now. Gerry Quinn is back in harness and after a few years of being on the fringes Pat Vaughan has found an heretofore unlikely home at corner back. There are many in the county who ,despite the magnitude of the game, would like a new non-Lohan era at full back to begin on Sunday. But since the Scariff trainer didn't experiment in this position in the spring, Frank Lohan's uncertain manning of the square will continue for one more match at least. Clare will also be boosted by a level of midfield play that they likely haven't seen since the heady and incendiary days of '98. The fact that Colin Lynch doesn't show much signs of the intervening ten years is practically a miracle of modern science and almost overshadows his partner Brian O'Connell's new found consistency. Clare's forwards have had a few long nights of the soul since the Munster final. It is perhaps indicative of their status as a combination with a mite too few chiefs amongst plentiful worthy Indians that the good press they earned pre -munster final was franked with an underwhelming display. The last time they were talked up to this extent was prior to the first round Munster game against Sunday's opposition in 2006 when they also underachieved. The two Tony's and Diarmuid Mcmahon all played reasonably well against Cork in the semi-final in 2005 before fading in the last 25 minutes. But a repeat of that form on Sunday would likely be enough. Ultimately though after pricking the balloon of cliche earlier in the article, the ghost of Semple Stadium comes whispering into mind. When Clare beat Cork four times in a row in the 90's all bar one victory was achieved away from the home of hurling. If Cork mightn't have the same motivation to push themselves over a winning line eight days on, the very comfortable surroundings of Thurles may do the needful.

Having what Montgomery Burns would call "one of my unpredictable changes of heart" this column does however believe that this will be Waterford's last chance for a few years to win the All-Ireland. However it will take a mid-summer revival of the type that Michael Bond engineered ten years ago in Offaly by Davy Fitzgerald to bring Waterford to a level where the last big chance isn't already gone. Those who collate phrase books have probably scurried in recent weeks to include Ken McGrath's siting at full back as the most apposite example of the "robbing Peter to pay Paul phenomenon". If the Deise make a semi final and Aidan Kearney returns to the prime of his health it will be interesting to see if the experiment continues. If Davy is still in two minds the respective displays of Declan Prendergast and Shane O'Sullivan at corner and wing back tomorrow will be instructive. Waterford do look stronger on paper with the strange omissions of Brian Phelan and Stephen Molumphy being reversed. Also Seamus Prendergast seemed to be playing his way into form in last weeks second half. However when you compare the form of the aforementioned Molumphy, Brick Walsh and obviously Dan Shanahan with last year, its obvious the road that still has to be travelled. The burden will obviously need to be lifted off Eoin Kelly and John Mullane given their mercurial natures. The pair could however have another day in the sun given that Wexford's full back line are very unsettled this year due to injuries and form. Doc O' Connor has been dragooned into service at full back, on the published side at least, but this leads to Colin Farrell lining out at wing-back, a position in which he has no inter-county experience. It's surprising considering that he has been physically fit for a month or so that Barry Lambert, arguably hurlings most improved player in 2007, hasn't made the starting line-up. Wexford certainly have enough skillful players in Quigley, Lyng, P.J Nolan, Doyle and the undervalued Rory Jacob to produce a display to best an underpowered Waterford. But injury has blighted John Meyler's summer and there is likely too much sticking plaster in the Wexford configuration to overcome the recuperating Waterford.

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