Clare picked up the Liam McCarthy Cup after two tense thrillers with Cork in 2013 but time waits for no man and that title is now part of the distant past.
It was perhaps an unexpected run that year but credit where credit is due, Clare outclassed all that came before them. Davy Fitz said during the week that he regretted not celebrating that victory as much as he should have. In a sport where you’re only as good as your last game, Davy is indeed correct.
All-Irelands should be cherished and celebrated appropriately. Perhaps Kilkenny’s advantage over others is that they can put victories behind them and continually look forward to the next challenge. Clare haven’t challenged in a meaningful way since that All-Ireland appearance in 2013.
The Banner will open this year’s Championship campaign against Waterford on Sunday. Both teams will be very familiar with each other having played twice already to settle this year’s League decider.
Clare will have been delighted to get over the line in that final and add some silverware to the coffers. Waterford will probably feel they should have won both of those games. Their inaccuracy in the first game was actually shocking to watch. They were the better team on the second day and maybe a worrying factor for Derek McGrath is that they did not finish Clare off when they had them on the ropes.
But that was the League and this is Championship. A replay against Kilkenny in 1959 was the last time that Waterford wintered with Liam McCarthy. It’s a hell of a long time ago. So who has the hunger and the belief to see themselves in Croke Park in September?
Waterford have proven that they can score goals. Goals win matches they say, but score enough points and that will do too. Waterford, when they are in the zone, can pick off long-range points that can break the hearts of the opposition.
One can only presume that shooting practice has increased ten-fold since that first League final display and if that is sorted, it’s hard to look past the Deise men to come through against Clare.
Tony Kelly will not win this game on his own and Waterford will no doubt give him the attention that a top class forward deserves. McGrath has shown that when it comes to tactical battles, he is capable of holding the winning hand.
Utilising scoring half backs and crowding their own defence will scupper any thoughts Clare have of freedom deep in opposition territory. Clare won that All-Ireland in 2013 by scoring goals, something that they will find difficult against a crowded Waterford defence.
The opening game in this year’s Munster championship was such a dour affair that hurling needs a cracker to materialise between these two. The weather will be perfect for a fast ball game, fitness will play a factor but one feels that Waterford will be the ones celebrating come the final whistle. It may be a close affair, but it’s Waterford by four or five points for me.
Waterford have had better teams than the current one who didn’t win an All-Ireland title but this team, this year look more balanced than they did in the past. 1959 is a long time ago and maybe, just maybe this will be the year that Waterford finally break through. 1995 saw a new style of hurling, and it was brought to the All-Ireland final by a young and fit Clare team that managed to end their title drought. 2016 may be the year the Deise make a similar breakthrough.
Fergal Cantwell, Pundit Arena