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Champions up against spent force

by Denis Walsh was published in the Sunday Times on Sunday the 9th of August 1998

IN THIS business we know that apparent certainties have a capacity for treachery, although it is a little piece of knowledge we manage to suppress with ease.

The bookmakers have made Clare even stronger odds-on favourites to win this match than they did for the first Munster final. You will remember that only one team could possibly win the first Munster final. It ought to be enough to make us think that today's match is a two-horse race; if only intellectual leaps were our forte.

In the aftershock of upset we remind ourselves, sternly, that this business of forecasting is not a science but that it is full of variables.

Most of these are linked to human nature and ego is the most powerful of the lot. It may be that Clare will win this match easily, but there must be a chance that enough Offaly players will not care to be undressed in front of 40,000 people in Croke Park and hundreds of thousands more watching on television.

But how far can that carry them? When Offaly were at their best three or four years ago they played with a devastating simplicity, they move the ball quickly and the quicker they played it the more spread the play became. However, that dynamic has gone from their game now.

Too many of their players are second to the ball, too many of their players are not able to compete at the level of intensity required and, for a couple, their touch has been dulled by age.

Most of the half a dozen new young players that Offaly have tried this summer and last have not measured up and a few of the older players look spent, or satisfied, or both. If Offaly detail a man to mark Jamesie O'Connor it is most likely to be Kevin Martin, but if O'Connor starts on Brian Whelahan's wing they are unlikely to switch him. Clare will probably force Offaly to make that choice. Whelahan would not relish trailing O'Connor all over Croke Park, no more than he relished it against Larry Murphy in the Leinster final two years ago.

The composition of the Clare team will probably deviate more from the published selection than for any of their other matches this summer. Liam Doyle is extremely unlikely to play and it must be doubtful that they would give young John Reddan his competitive debut in an all-Ireland semi-final.

Michael O'Halloran will probably come into the corner, with possibly Christie Chaplin playing at wing-back. It is hard to believe that Fergie Tuohy did enough in the last match to start today; perhaps Ger O'Loughlin will take his place or even Connor Clancy. Clare seem to believe that Clancy's ball-winning capacity is of more use in the tighter spaces of Croke Park than the wide expanses of Thurles.

Against Wexford or Waterford or Kilkenny, you would expect Clare to be at least a little vulnerable today, but this Offaly team has had its day. Perhaps they will leave the championship with one good performance and a degree of pride but this is another of those days when we can foresee only one, linear plot line. Fools are not easily separated from their folly.

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