CAN Sixmilebridge continue their unbeaten run and justify favouritism by re-claiming a title they last held just two years ago?
Will Clonlara deliver on their undoubted potential and atone for the disappointments of recent years since they made the breakthrough and won the title in 2008
How will Sean Stack’s involvement as Clonlara manager impact on the game?
Can Clonlara complete the senior/junior double and capture the Canon Hamilton Trophy to go alongside the Junior A Cup won last week?
These are just a few of the questions being raised ahead of Sunday’s Clare Senior Hurling Championship final between Clonlara and Sixmilebridge, which has all the ingredients to be one of the best finals in years. Both clubs were on most people’s shortlist for honours when the draw was made back in March.
Winning back the Canon Hamilton Trophy has been foremost in the minds of all involved with Sixmilebridge GAA since the beginning of the 2015 season. Disappointed at the manner in which they were stripped of the 2013 title last year, when they failed to make it out of the group stage, they set out this totally focused on their objective.
Unbeaten in both league and championship and having won their way through to the final of both competitions, their determination to capture the Canon Hamilton Trophy for the 12th time is clear.
While they haven’t been quite as impressive on their way to the final, Clonlara’s determination to win the title has been equally clear. They put a new management team in place in this, inviting former Sixmilebridge captain, Sean Stack to take charge. Stack has enjoyed success in both Tipperary and Limerick, where he has led Toomevara and Na Piarsaigh to county and provincial honours.
He has had to plan without the Galvin brothers, Colm and Ian, for much of the season. Colm travelled to the US back in April and wasn’t available for the early stages of the competition, while Ian missed a number of games due to injury. Stack and his fellow selectors caused some surprise when they opted to position All-Star forward John Conlon at centre-back where he has impressed, particularly in the semi-final replay win over Kilmaley.
The team has improved with each outing but their form has not been consistent and this must be a concern for their fans. Much is being made of the fact that Clonlara have John Conlon, Domhnaill O’Donovan, Nicky and Cathal O’Connell, Colm Galvin and Darach Honan, all members of Clare’s All-Ireland winning senior panel of 2013. Add in Ger O’Connell (All-Ireland winning minor goalie from 1997), Cillian Fennessy, Shane and Oisín O’Brien (members of Clare U-21 winning teams) and Cormac O’Donovan, scorer of the winning point in the 2009 All-Ireland U-21 final and it is clear that they have a very strong panel at their disposal.
Sixmilebridge aren’t short when it comes to players with inter-county experience, as they can call on Niall Gilligan, Jamie Shanahan, Seadna and Caimin Morey, Derek Fahy, Cathal Malone and Shane Golden, to mention some.
Indeed, Cathal Malone has been a huge addition to the club since he transferred from Ennistymon at the start of the season, as his contributions of 0-6 in the quarter-final win over Cratloe and 0-5 in the semi-final victory over Crusheen, all from play, indicate.
Veteran Niall Gilligan continues to be a thorn for all opponents and Clonlara will have to be well organised in defence if they are to limit the scoring threat of Clare’s All-Ireland medal winner from 1997.
At the other end of the field, Sixmilebridge will have to be equally alert if they are to cope with the threat posed by young Micheál O’Loughlin, who has sparkled in this campaign, and also to deal with Darach Honan, who has created a number of goal opportunities for his side on their way to the final.
While Clare hurling followers are holding out hope that the county champions will enjoy a good run in the provincial championships, players and mentors from both sides have stressed that they are not looking beyond Sunday’s final.
On the way to the final, Sixmilebridge have been the more consistent outfit and this, together with the fact that they were champions just two years ago, entitles them to be listed as the favourites.
That said, it would be foolish not to give serious consideration to Clonlara’s chances. If the O’Connells, the Galvins, the O’Donovans, Conlon and Honan manage to get a grip on matters, they are certainly capable of bridging that seven-year gap since that memorable day back in 2008, when they defeated Newmarket.
For now, however, a hesitant nod goes to Sixmilebridge based on the consistency they have shown throughout this season.
By Seamus Hayes, sports editor