Shane Stapleton: More on the line than an All-Ireland semi-final

Shane Stapleton looks ahead to some crunch fixtures in the All-Ireland hurling Championship and examines what each team has at stake

Joe Canning

Image: ©INPHO/Tom Beary

Rarely has the polarity between winning and losing been so stark for so many.

Perched atop the needle this Sunday at Semple Stadium is more than just the prize of an All-Ireland semi-final for four hopeful counties.

In itself, that is a golden carrot, but there’s so much more at stake other than the exhilaration of winning a huge Championship game and keeping the train on the tracks going into August.

For Galway, they are playing for the vindication of last year’s mutiny. Don’t discount that pressure.

How about Waterford? Oh little more than credence in a defensive system that served them so well until Tipperary’s blasphemous assault.

The Wexford players, whether they wish it so or not, are going to the trenches for the future of manager Liam Dunne.

Clare, lo, are playing for two All-Irelands. Just as Tipperary were in 1991 after a perceived soft title in ’89 against Antrim, they must now deliver against the heavyweights. Davy Fitz’s projected route is a beast: Galway, Tipp, Kilkenny. Note: the Banner last toppled the Cats in mid-summer action in 1997, and Tipp in 2003.

Wring your fists at this sleight on 2013 if you will, but it’s undeniable that the Cats were victims of injuries, while the Premier — serial challengers either side of that season — fell victim in Nowlan Park before that. Clare likely need to beat both to win Liam, and be vindicated as Babs’ side was 25 years ago.

Now while we’re being unpopular, let’s talk about Joe Canning. 

There’s a very select group in Ireland who produce the highest-grade, top choice cuts of hurling. Among others, TJ Reid, Richie Hogan, Seamus Callanan, John 'Bubbles' O’Dwyer, Tony Kelly, Austin Gleeson, and so forth. 

The sort of men who do things that merit the storage space of Jimmy Magee’s memory. 

Joe Canning dejected after losing the Leinster final against Kilkenny 

Canning falls into the above bracket of such memory men: the pirouette-catch-goal against Kilkenny in last year’s Leinster final, the sideline equaliser against the Cats a season earlier, the glistening display in defeat to Cork 2008.

Where he falls down is consistency in big games. Okay, you’re angry because this is about as popular as suggesting Colm Cooper’s most wonderful football has come and gone, but let’s delve deeper.

In the recent Leinster final, the Portumna man assumed possession from open play on just eight occasions, with half at midfield or inside his own half of the field. Only Canning knows why he wasn’t in it more but it’s not unfair to suggest that a lack of intensity off the ball has to be a factor.

As it was in the All-Ireland final last year, as it was when they played Clare in this same fixture in 2013; his influence wasn’t felt when the chips were down. If you’re the leader, the first finger in the dam must be yours. Of course there’s a collective intensity required, but it’s married to individual responsibility.

Framed in the context of memorable moments by the aforementioned magicians, it’s true that a wonderful stickman is not always a go-to guy. Until the 27-year-old drives his team up the Hogan Stand in September, the question marks remain — and with justification because his abilities warrant that.

Contrast his grace and skill with four of the six Kilkenny forwards to start the provincial final: Colin Fennelly, Lester Ryan, Wally Walsh and Jonjo Farrell. Each have a great touch but which among them are a stickman in the same calibre of Canning, capable of ashplant sorcery? None, not even close.

But they deliver, or they have done more often than not when needed, and that’s what makes a great hurler. Just as Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher is for Tipp — great touch, questionable striking, but you’d go to war with him.

Richie Hogan played 35 minutes of the Leinster final, had the ball in his hand seven times, split the posts for 0-5, and set up a chance for Michael Fennelly. The Kilkenny dam was leaking but their little Dutch boy, as ever, made winning his business. That says it all.

Richie Hogan inspired a tremendous second-half performance against Galway 

Even Cristiano Ronaldo found out that you can’t always be the guy striking the cup-winning penalty; whereas Leo Messi has done it all with his club but he’ll always be asked what he did with Argentina. Magicians will always be held most accountable, as the serial winner with Portumna has to be.

Players of Johnny Glynn’s ilk allow others to express themselves and his absence has been most keenly felt this season. He might say himself, "that’s f***ing bulls**t", but it’s not.

This Clare side coughed up 23 turnovers against Waterford in the Munster loss — to the tune of 1-5 — so other Galway men must sniff out these weaknesses while showing more composure on the ball themselves.

The Banner have shaky pillars at the back but then the Tribe continue to run with a makeshift midfield of natural forwards. It’s a toss-up because both sides are flawed.

In the other game, Waterford are in a mire but it’s one of their own making. They hit ten wides in the first half against Tipp and, perhaps as importantly, they should have goaled just after John McGrath raised that first green flag.

Stephen O’Keeffe’s restart broke behind the Premier defence and Shane Bennett had a simple pick-up to send him clean through, one that he spoiled.

The Deise gave up eventually but they’re not anything like as bad as the scoreline suggested. Reboot, do what got you this far, and go again.

They should have enough for a Wexford team that has suffered defeats of 24, 24 and 13 points in the past three seasons. Beating Cork will fuel the Model County, but surely not for 70 minutes.

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