As part of our build-up to this weekend’s AIG Fenway Classic, we take a look at Clare, as they begin to prepare for 2018.
How will they deal with retirements?
For the first time since 2005, Clare will enter a hurling season with no Brendan Bugler, Patrick Donnellan, nor Colin Ryan. The loss of such experience undoubtedly hurts any team, but how well equipped are they to deal with the blow?
The dearth of elder statesmen does not necessarily equate to a lack of experience. Those who contributed to the three-in-a-row at U21 from 2012-14 back up the squad, with the small matter of 2013’s Celtic Crosses to boot.
This remains a young team, but they are most certainly not inexperienced.
Will they positively react to the new championship structures?
It is no secret that Clare have struggled in the Munster Championship in recent years. In fact, 2018 will mark 20 years since their most recent provincial crown.
The new format will ensure that they will have to do things the hard way if they are to be successful, with trips to Páirc Uí Chaoimh and Semple Stadium to face off against Cork and Tipperary respectively.
Considering that three Munster counties reached the All-Ireland semi-finals this year, Clare are thought to be down the pecking order. However, they have benefited from runs of regular games in recent years, so perhaps the new format may come as some boost.
Can home advantage offer any benefit?
Cusack Park is not mentioned in the same breath as Semple Stadium, Gaelic Grounds or Páirc Uí Chaoimh when it comes to traditional Munster venues, but the Ennis stadium promises to be a daunting place to visit for away teams.
Wexford in 2014 and Dublin 2012 were the last two teams to come to the ground in genuinely competitive championship action, and those occasions produced real atmospheres.
The Banner won three out of four home games in the 2017 National Hurling League, which would suggest that Waterford and Limerick will have a task on their hands next summer.
Will they deliver on the promise?
The long-beaten drum is that in 2013, it looked like we had a new hurling super-power in town.
Four years on and some are making suggestions that their sole triumph since 1997 was a fluke. Whether or not that rings true, the fact of the matter is that the Banner have done little since to make an argument otherwise.
The Gerry O’Connor and Donal Moloney era was never intended to be a one-year project, but the second season needs to show signs of progress.
What O’Connor and Moloney need to cultivate is an environment in which this side can thrive once again, playing to their strengths while keeping the opposition guessing.
What is there to be learned this weekend?
Clare take Tipperary in an 11-aside game in Boston this Sunday, with the victor facing Dublin or Galway in the decider. Come next September, will many remember who came out on top? Or indeed, will it have any bearing on next summer?
Probably not, but it does offer an opportunity for O’Connor and Moloney to bring in new talent, and take a look at different options.