It may not be the 81 long years that Clare had to go through in the lead up to their dream summer of 1995. The wait this time may only be a potential three years but a lot of people are tipping the Banner to reign supreme in Ireland this year.
Clare’s poor performances since winning the All-Ireland in 2013 have been a massive disappointment. Clare won a great All-Ireland title in a year when hurling was as open and as entertaining as it has ever been. Players played with freedom, pace and skill that has not be seen since the 2014 drawn All-Ireland final.
Disappointment was the word used above seen as Clare’s poor performances in 2014 and 2015 have a had a negative impact on hurling as a whole. The Saffron and Blue had such a variety of strengths that they looked ready to embark on a period of dominance. A senior All-Ireland was backed up by three All-Ireland under-21 titles in a row, yet they failed miserably the build on their success.
A lot of people are talking up Clare following their League success. It is understandable looking at their emphatic win over Kilkenny and their come-back win over Waterford after a replay. Clare’s tails are definitely up, and the ‘yahoo’s can be heard again.
This Sunday, their real 2016 season kicks off.
Clare exposed a lot of Kilkenny’s weaknesses in that League semi-final. Kilkenny may have been short some key players, but Davy Fitzgerald has the calibre of players to expose those weaknesses, and they did so with style.
Pace and movement are the key things required to counteract Kilkenny’s physicality. The Cats outwork teams, turned games into dogfights and force teams to play on their terms. Clare did the opposite; they matched their intensity, matched their workrate and then we saw how easily Kilkenny can be opened up.
To side-track from the title for a moment, Clare showed everybody how to beat Kilkenny. Whether teams will take this approach in the summer will be interesting to see, but the league and championship will definitely be a different story.
Anyway, back to Clare, a lot of plaudits will go to Tony Kelly for his scoring ability and his influence on winning or losing games. He is a phenomenal talent, and his early season injury was the best thing that could have happened to him.
As mentioned on a previous piece in these pages, injury can often be a player’s only way of getting a break and now Tony Kelly looks primed for an assault to regain his Hurler of the Year crown from 2013. Another huge asset that Kelly has is his ability to get the crowd roaring.
Clare have one of the most passionate followings out there and when the 22 year-old raises white or green flags, they are often inspirational scores. They lift the crowd and the players around him and make Clare a much tougher team to beat. But while Kelly is key, there is one more important player to this Clare side.
There is little coincidence in this writer’s mind that the return of Podge Collins has had a massive impact. He is the key man and his absence over the last two years was a huge reason for Clare’s regression.
In 2013, Collins was the man who made them tick all over the field. Kelly may have been the one who got the big scores, but over the course of a 70 minute game, Collins’ impact was invaluable.
The dual provided the pace and energy that set the template for Clare to play at that high intensity. He contributed to the score board well that year but his influence on other areas was far more important. He won endless amounts of frees and was the link between getting the ball from attack up to defence.
Now that he is back, he is playing a slightly more defensive role, meaning his impact on the scoreboard may not be as significant. But he is making an even bigger impression in the other areas of the game. He is picking up ball everywhere and setting up Clare possessions.
It can often be said that a players influence is not really appreciated until it is gone. Clare struggled without Collins over the last two years. 2014 saw him miss much of the season through suspension while 2015 saw him opt to play football over hurling, another dispute that could not have helped Clare.
There have been new faces both on and off the field for Clare this year that all appear to be having a positive impact. Paul Kinnerk (a returnee), Donal Óg Cusack, Óisín O’Brien, and David Fitzgerald appear to have injected something that Clare had been missing over the last two years.
They kick off their championship campaign and quest for Liam McCarthy this Sunday against Waterford. Injuries may affect them and it should be remembered that they lost at this stage in 2013 when they went onto win the All-Ireland.
The Munster Championship will be a big deal to Clare as they attempt to win their first championship match since 2008 and their first Munster title since 1998.
This writer expects them to come up short on Sunday. Clare are down some key players to injury and the Waterford side with revenge on their minds will account for them.
That is when the fun could really start for Clare; that is when they could have to answer the big questions. That is when people might see a potential blow out between Davy Fitzgerald and Donal Óg Cusack. That could be when Clare start to unravel and show the lack of composure that they have shown over the last few years.
A win for Clare would be huge on Sunday, a loss would not be a catastrophe but it could put doubt in their minds.
We will all be able to tell by simply listening to the crowd walking out of Thurles on Sunday evening.
Sean Cremin, Pundit Arena.