IN many ways Clare’s progress to the National Hurling League semi-final is surprising, given the number of injuries that has deprived the team of many regulars.
The side had to face Tipperary in the quarter-final without eight players that were in the team that lost to Cork in the championship qualifier last summer. Considering this, Clare’s progress to this stage of the league has been impressive. Indeed, those that have been called into the panel have made a mark, which means there is huge competition for places in the team.
While the situation with injured players is not as bad as in recent weeks, the expectation is the team on Sunday to face Kilkenny will be along the lines of that which lined out Tipperary two weeks ago.
Both Clare and Kilkenny have availed of the campaign to give fringe players an opportunity to impress. Clare have used over 30, while Kilkenny have given 28 players an outing.
Tony Kelly is back in training, having missed the campaign due to a leg injury suffered at a training session and while he is likely to see some action on Sunday, he will not be in the starting line-up.
His clubmate Jack Browne is still recovering from a leg injury picked up in the Fitzgibbon Cup final and is not expected to be in the squad this week.
Peter Duggan is also expected to be an absentee due to a back injury which he aggravated when playing with his club Clooney-Quin recently.
Seadna Morey and Shane Golden returned to competitive action with Sixmilebridge last week and are both challenging to be in the squad on Sunday. Neither Colm Galvin or Conor Ryan played with their clubs at the weekend but both are expected to be in the team, as is Colin Ryan, who played the closing stages of the quarter-final, having just returned from honeymoon two days earlier.
Joint team captain Cian Dillon has been in excellent form in recent outings and he is expected to again be named at full-back. It will be interesting to see if management continue with the tactic of deploying the Crusheen man in the role of sweeper, with Patrick O’Connor taking up duty in the full-back line.
Conor Ryan may revert to a role in the half-back line, where he did so well in Clare’s memorable All-Ireland run in 2013.
David Reidy is expected to continue at midfield where he has been very impressive throughout the campaign. His partner could be Conor Ryan, Colm Galvin or Colin Ryan.
Following his impressive showing last time out, Darach Honan is expected to be in the forward line, along with Conor McGrath and John Conlon. All three were hugely impressive against Tipperary and again for their clubs at the weekend.
Aron Shanagher, Bobby Duggan, Conor Cleary and Cathal ‘Tots’ O’Connell have all done well when called upon during the campaign.
Kilkenny have injury concerns and there are doubts about the fitness of Michael and Colin Fennelly, both of whom were forced out of their quarter-final tie with Offaly.
All-star defender Paul Murphy is likely to be out due to a shoulder injury but the experienced Jackie Tyrrell is understood to be in contention to come in as his replacement.
Elsewhere, the defence is expected to include Joe Holden, last year’s captain, at full-back; Shane Prendergast, this year’s captain, at corner-back; Padraig Walsh, Cillian Buckley and Kieran Joyce.
Colin Fogarty is a doubtful starter due to an ankle injury but Ritchie Hogan and TJ Reid are expected to return, having missed the win over Offaly. Eoin Larkin will again be an absentee as he is currently on duty with the Irish Army in Syria.
Walter Walsh and Kevin Kelly are others expected to feature in the Noresider’s attack, while John Power is also pressing strongly for inclusion from the start.
It is a strong line-up for Kilkenny and the Brian Cody-managed side will carry the favourites’ tag.
Being the underdogs has not upset Clare as they deservingly accounted for both Limerick and Tipperary who were the bookies’ favourites.
Some have questioned if Clare’s plans will alter on Sunday should Waterford overcome Limerick in the opening semi-final, given that Clare and Waterford are gearing up for a Munster Championship semi-final date on June 5.
It’s unlikely to make any difference however, as Clare seem to be taking a leaf from Kilkenny’s book this year by chasing victory in every game they play. It’s 10 played and 10 won so far in 2016 for the Bannermen and while this will be their stiffest test so far, it would not be a major shock should it be 11 wins come Sunday evening.
By Seamus Hayes, sports editor