Settle in with a cup of tea as Eoin Brennan previews this weekend’s Clare Senior Hurling Championship clashes
Round 1 Group 3
Clooney-Quin v Scariff at O’Garney Park Sixmilebridge, Saturday 2pm
It’s 12 years since the sides met in the senior championship but their unfamiliarity on the field doesn’t mean that the sides haven’t been scrutinising each other off it over the past few months.
If they haven’t, they should have been as first and foremost with Kilmaley and Éire Óg understandably installed as group favourites, a victory in this tie is simply a prerequisite.
That’s not for a minute suggesting that Clooney-Quin or Scariff cannot overcome either of the perceived top two. However, they’re realistically unlikely to beat both so therefore an opening victory would be the perfect platform to not only have two free shots at a quarter-final but also ease any relegation burden which is looming even larger this year.
Both have their marquee players, with Mark Rodgers and Patrick Crotty part of the Clare senior squad following last year’s successful club senior championship consolidation having just come up from intermediate.
Clooney-Quin have their own stars in Peter Duggan and Ryan Taylor but the loss of Cillian Duggan and Conor Harrison leaves a huge hole to fill in terms of experience and composure.
It’s a 50-50 contest but ironically while Clooney-Quin failed to win a regulation championship match in 2021 while Scariff did, it’s a road more travelled, despite the high price of fuel, by Tommy Corbett’s side.
Kilmaley v Éire Óg at Cusack Park Ennis, Saturday 7pm
Unquestionably the tie of the entire weekend as these neighbours finally reveal their championship hands, having patiently sat out the opening weekend.
It’s not telling any tales out of school to suggest that both will be eyeing up the ultimate prize in three months’ time but while the outcome of this contest won’t be detrimental to the loser, it’s still a mouthwatering first barometer as to what level Kilmaley and Éire Óg are at.
Kilmaley’s recent Clare Cup triumph was a perfectly timed boost with their strongest 15 available so while Mikey O’Malley did retire prematurely with an ankle injury, the former county senior is likely to be back in contention, possibly along with the J1 crew of Tom O’Rourke, Aidan Griffey and Cathal Darcy who actually plays football with the Townies.
Éire Óg meanwhile have been keeping their heads down and having yet to see either of their first 15 in either hurling or football in competitive action to date, they will hope that their experience and star quality in Shane O’Donnell, David Reidy, Aaron Fitzgerald, Liam Corry, Darren O’Brien, Ciaran Russell and Danny Russell will be sufficient to see them prevail on Saturday evening.
Overall, victory is more essential to Kilmaley as there have been much more question marks surrounding their consistency in recent seasons and therefore taking down a huge rival would be viewed as a major step in the right direction.
It’s hard to bet against the Townies though as having contested the last six knock-out stages and reached the last two semi-finals, their trajectory suggests that only a county final appearance will suffice.
Verdict: Éire Óg
Smith O’Brien’s v Wolfe Tones at O’Garney Park Sixmilebridge, Saturday 4pm
No bonus points for guessing Smith O’Brien’s and Wolfe Tones last championship meeting as their unmissable two match intermediate semi-final saga in 2015 specifically coined the term ‘Gategate’.
All to do with an over-exuberant coming together on the sideline that inadvertently broke a rusted gate on the Shed side (apologies the North Terrace) of Cusack Park.
The sides couldn’t be separated on or off the field that day but the Shannon side prevailed in the replay by five points on their way to county and historic provincial club honours.
Smith O’Brien’s did get to exact revenge quicker than expected later that season when their super-amalgamation with Broadford yielded a first Minor A title at the expense of a much heralded Tones.
In truth, the intermediate run that year was the closest they came until bringing Scariff to extra-time in the 2020 semi-final, a valuable experience that only circled the wagons even further for last year’s successful breakthrough.
Now back in their first senior campaign in nine years, Smith O’Brien’s start is pivotal and that means taking down a Wolfe Tones side that may not have pulled up any trees in recent seasons but have quality in abundance when at full strength backed by an inter-county spine of Rory Hayes, Darragh Lohan Aaron Cunningham and Aron Shanagher.
If rumours are to be believed, Shanagher could miss this opening tie, a blow that would really level the playing field.
Wolfe Tones already curtailed the previous intermediate winners Scariff in their opening tie of last season and will be expected to shade a tight contest albeit that Smith O’Brien’s meticulous gameplan can be extremely potent if they can hit the ground running.
Verdict: Wolfe Tones
Inagh-Kilnamona v Crusheen at Cusack Park Ennis, Saturday 5pm
With this being a clash of the second from top versus the second from bottom based on last year’s championship finish, invariably that wouldn’t suggest much of a contest even for the most optimistic preview writer.
However, one has to remember that while Inagh-Kilnamona could and arguably should have seen out the county final, it was their first decider appearance after a frustrating decade of trying.
Equally, of all four relegation candidates, Crusheen’s dip was the most surprising as previously they had been predominantly vying for the top half of the championship rather than the lower reaches.
Crusheen’s average age profile doesn’t augur well on the medium term but as the only Division 1A team of the ‘Relegation Four’, their top three finish should certainly have restored some much needed confidence.
That said, they couldn’t have asked for a tougher start, as with Inagh-Kilnamona equally determined to prove their doubters wrong and the fact that both of the previous two championship meetings in 2017 and 18 went against Crusheen, they will need to be at their best on Saturday evening.
What could alter the narrative are Inagh-Kilnamona injury doubts over Clare Under 20 Conner Hegarty and former senior panelist Kevin Hehir while there are still question marks surrounding Aidan McCarthy’s form and fitness having only recovered from a severe leg injury that kept him out for Clare’s entire season.
If all three play, last year’s finalists should have enough strength-in-depth and quality to prevail but if they don’t, it could leave the door ajar for Kevin Sheehan’s side to potentially exploit.
Round 2 Group 1
Newmarket-on-Fergus v Whitegate at Dr. Daly Park Tulla, Saturday 5pm
It’s a team needing a backlash against a fresh team requiring a real first lash as following last Saturday’s bitterly disappointing finish to their derby opener against Sixmilebridge, the Blues will be eager to redress the balance on Saturday.
Whitegate, off the back of an encouraging campaign in last year’s group of death, will look to exploit nagging doubts in the Blues’ heads with a good start.
However, with only two emerging from the group and Newmarket now being in must-win territory, there won’t be any shred of complacency as they look to grind out a result by whatever means possible.
Feakle v Sixmilebridge at Cusack Park Ennis, Sunday 3pm
Another cracking tie in prospect as with this being a battle of the two first round winners in Group 1, neither will want to take a back step.
Sixmilebridge will undoubtedly enter as slight favourites due to their vast title winning experience as they cling to the majority of their side that have captured five of the last eight Canon Hamilton crowns.
That experience was vital in getting over the line against Newmarket but whether the ‘Bridge can go deep into the championship with the same crew intact remains to be seen.
Feakle are dogged but with no championship history against the ‘Bridge, the Cusack Park factor could work in the 2019 and ’20 champions favour as the likes of Jamie Shanahan, Cathal Malone, Seadna Morey, Shane Golden and Caimin Morey know every inch of Clare HQ.
Ballyea v Broadford at Shannon, Saturday 2pm
The county champions don’t need any motivation to face Broadford as while they didn’t have any previous history up to 2021, last August’s opening bout between the sides in Cusack Park certainly tested Ballyea to their optimum before just prevailing by two.
Broadford have been quietly going about their business so far in 2022 and slowly warmed to their task in the Clare Cup before receiving a bye in last weekend’s first round.
The East Clare side will be licking their lips but so will a Ballyea side that will feel that they are ahead of where they anticipated, having gelled seamlessly in their opening tie against the Mills.
Broadford will be much more cohesive but the addition of proven leaders Gearoid O’Connell and Cathal Doohan to an already beefy pack should provide the extra edge required to maintain their unblemished title defence.
Clarecastle v O’Callaghan’s Mills at Cusack Park Ennis, Sunday 1pm
It may not be the most enticing tie of the weekend but it’s certainly the most important as following respective opening round beatings for at the hands of Cratloe and Ballyea, it’s now must-win territory for Clarecastle and O’Callaghan’s Mills to avoid being embroiled in another dreaded relegation series.
Of course, with two further group matches to come, it shouldn’t be that grave quite yet but tell that to the Mills who have already replaced manager Donach O’Donnell with Conor Dolan, Davy and Colm Fitzgerald in order to spark a response.
Equally from a Magpie perspective, it shouldn’t matter if the father, son and holy ghost are in charge of the Mills as if they cannot raise their performance levels for this tie, then they really don’t realistically have any business at senior level.
Verdict: O’Callaghan’s Mills