Jamesie OConnor column: Clare and Wexford primed for do-or-die qualifier in biggest game of the weekend
It is a long road back to the business end of the All-Ireland Hurling Championship for Clare and Wexford.
If either team is to reach an All-Ireland semi-final, they need three wins in as many weekends, firstly on Saturday, then against Cork, Galway or Waterford/Laois, and after that against a beaten provincial finalist.
Every team going into Monday morning’s draw knew the potential pitfalls, but sometimes you need a bit of good fortune.
And Lady Luck certainly smiled on Cork and Galway, who have received a bye into round two.
But outside of Limerick, the Hurling Championship is wide open right now. Every team feels that ‘On any given day, we can beat anybody. If Limerick slip up at some point, there’s an All-Ireland there for the taking’.
Clare and Wexford to face off once more
The Banner have quite a good record in this rivalry, winning the 2018 All-Ireland quarter-final as well as last year’s qualifier.
Wexford did come out on top when the sides met in the National League in May.
But Clare will have no fear of their opponents in Thurles on Saturday.
When we talk about Clare vs Wexford, there is no getting away from the breakdown of relations between Brian Lohan and Davy Fitzgerald.
The Covid-19 contact tracing controversy certainly adds another degree of spice to the contest. There remains a level of dismay in Clare ranks over that episode.
Clare enter this contest in a relatively good position.
They enjoyed an impressive win over Waterford, and hurled well for long periods against Tipperary. The James Owens decision changed the contest, and annoyance over that call will linger.
But they didn’t throw in the towel, and if Aron Shanagher was awarded a penalty late on, it might have been a different story.
Wexford played heroically against Kilkenny. But I would worry about the energy expended in that loss. The Yellowbellies went toe-to-toe with the Cats for 90 minutes in an absorbing contest. You could see at full-time, the players were out on their feet, and they were gutted.
How much did that Leinster semi-final take out of the players?
Granted, they have had two weeks to recover which I’m sure is ample time to recharge the batteries. But to put so much in and come away with nothing has to be tough.
Davy has a job on his hands to pick them back up again. There were signs that his team was back to their 2019 levels. Whether they can get back up there again on Saturday in Thurles remains to be seen.
Can they hit the same heights? Can they bring the same energy? It is not necessarily an easy thing to do, given their style of play. And that, for me, is a significant question mark.
The Lohan-Fitzgerald sideshow will naturally draw extra focus and scrutiny. But this is a knockout championship match between two teams with big ambitions this summer. It is as big as any hurling match this weekend.
Waterford looking to find their groove once more
I think this is the ideal draw for Liam Cahill.
Laois had a massive win on Saturday against Antrim to secure their Liam MacCarthy Cup status for 2022. 2-27 is great shooting, irrespective of who you are playing.
But I just can’t see Laois having enough to match the Déise. The 2020 All-Ireland finalists will be badly stung after their tame display against Clare.
Cahill spoke that day about how they need to throw everything at it, and that starting places are up for grabs.
The road to redemption starts back on Saturday, and I don’t see them making any mistakes against Laois.
Sky Sports’ live GAA coverage continues on Saturday, with the hurling qualifier meeting of Clare and Wexford, before Monaghan and Armagh face off in the Ulster Football Championship semi-final.
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