It may be a Saturday in July, the rain may be pouring but it’s All Ireland hurling semi-final day and this fixture between Clare and Galway promises not to disappoint. We take a look at the key questions ahead of the 5pm throw-in.
Who are the key match-ups?
When this fixture was first announced, the pairing that sprung to everyone’s mind was that of John Conlon v Daithi Burke. Two big, powerful men in the peak of their form going toe-to-toe, that is of course, if Burke is fit to start.There were rumours earlier this week that the talismanic defender had injured his ankle during a challenge game with the U21’s last weekend. Micheal Donoghue has reportedly told the Connacht Tribune that Burke is fit to play but Galway fans will be holding their breath until throw-in time to see if that’s true.
Much has also been made of the potential match-up of Tony Kelly up against Gearoid McInerney. But the Galway man is notorious for remaining in his centre-back position and so if Tony Kelly is tempted to roam and try and lure him away to open up space, it’s more likely that Padraic Mannion will be tasked with following the Ballyea man around.
How will Clare fare on their return to Croke Park?
It’s hard to believe but today marks the first time a Clare team have been in Croke Park since they won the All Ireland final in 2013. The bones of that squad are still with the Banner county but for some, it will be their first outing at GAA HQ. The likes of teenagers, Tony Kelly and Shane O’Donnell lit up the field in 2013 and their more mature selves will be heavily relied upon today.
Clare have yet to show the form that they produced five years ago, but with the big, open spaces in Croke Park, we may see a return to the pacy, flowing game that they love to play.
Who has the stronger bench?
The threat posed by Galway’s bench has been well publicised. They have some real game changers in reserve in the likes of Jason Flynn and Niall Burke who returns to the bench with Conor Cooney reinstated in the starting 15.
But the bench might be an area where Clare have the advantage. They’ve been given a big boost with the return of Aron Shanagher to the bench. Shanagher suffered a cruciate knee injury before Clare travelled to Boston for the Fenway Classic back in November and the young forward will add another string to the bow of the Clare attack. Let’s not forget what Conor McGrath can add to a game while the management team have turned to the likes of David Fitzgerald and Ian Galvin on numerous occasions this summer with the latter scoring late goals against Tipperary and Cork.
How do Clare get around this Galway pack?
Former Cork hurler and selector, Diarmuid ‘The Rock’ O’Sullivan spoke this week of the need for Clare to keep Galway moving. They haven’t got the players to match them for size or physicality with the average height of the Galway team standing at 6″1. But, as The Rock pointed out, Clare are a more athletic and quick side who can use that to their advantage.
“We’ve seen teams trying to go toe-to-toe with them physicality-wise, match them man-for-man and I don’t think it’s the way to play them.”
“Clare’s team in 2013 had an average height of 5″10 and this Galway team is averaging 6″1 so you get the ball to ground, you move them, you turn them, you keep twisting them.”
Who will take that step closer to the Liam McCarthy Cup?
This isn’t going to be as clear cut as some are predicting. On paper this looks to be a ferocious and relentless battle between two determined counties. These two counties border each other, their fans are neighbours. There will be no love lost or punches held once the teams cross the white line this evening. Nothing in hurling is ever certain. A game can turn with one puck of the ball, in a split second.
Yes, Galway are favourites. They are experienced, driven and confident. But that also means that all of the pressure lies on their shoulders to complete the two-in-a-row. We saw how they almost buckled when Kilkenny came flying back at them in the Leinster final replay. How will they cope if a similar scenario happens today?