They say what is rare is wonderful, so in that sense, it is wonderful that the Clare footballers are playing Waterford in the first round of the Munster championship.
It is rare because of the fact that it feels like Limerick have been the near annual opponents at this time of year, so if nothing else, as least it will be a new set of faces that line up against the Banner this weekend.
New faces will likely be part of the Banner line up too, with the possibility that veterans David Tubridy and Cathal O’Connor may miss out due to injury. That could pave the way for a midfield partnership of Gary Brennan and Sean O’Donoghue while Cormac Murray is likely to be rewarded for his recent run of form with a place in the inside line.
Whatever starting 15 Colm Collins goes with, it is possible that just five of the team that started the 2014 clash of these two sides in Cusack Park will feature. Kevin Harnett, Dean Ryan, Gordon Kelly, Jamie Malone and captain Gary Brennan will all line out as Clare will be hoping to avoid a repeat of that night’s result.
When you take that into account, it makes what Colm Collins has achieved during his time as Clare senior football manager all the more incredible. To lose players of the calibre of Joe Hayes, Martin McMahon, Shane McGrath, John Hayes, Liam Markham, Cathal McInerney, Ciaran Russell, Pat Burke, Enda Coughlan and Podge Collins over the last five years would be enough to cripple most counties. That is where Collins stands above the rest. One of the first acts of his managerial reign was to establish a pathway for younger players to get involved with the senior training panel so that they would experience what being a top level inter-county players was all about. It bore fruit within a few short years, and 2019 could well the year that it brings the sweetest taste of all. The emergence of recent underage stars in Gavin Cooney and Conal O’hAinifein has been a huge bonus this season, while the likes of Cillian Brennan and Sean O’Donoghue continue to enhance their already top class reputations.
So what do Clare need to get from the 2019 championship campaign in order for it to be deemed a success? The answer is quite simply a top level championship scalp, and put themselves into contention for the Super Eights. They have come so close in recent times to taking that championship scalp, but just fell short in the home straight. I’m thinking of Kildare in 2014 when a six-point half-time lead was whittled away in Cusack Park. I’m thinking of Kerry and Mayo in Cusack Park in 2017, and Armagh in the Athletic Grounds last year. All games where Clare metaphorically, and literally, hit the crossbar. Any of those would have been seen as a massive stride forward for a Clare side who made phenomenal progress through the qualifiers in 2016, but have just stalled a little in terms of results in the two campaigns. Last year’s win over Offaly was dramatic and brilliant, but all things being equal it was also expected.
That same tag of ‘expected’ also applies to this weekend’s clash with Waterford, and while it is a game that Clare will likely win, it is one they simply have to. The Banner carry the favourites tag into the tie in Cusack Park, but face a shrewd operator in Deise boss Benji Whelan. A team with nothing to lose are the most dangerous opponent, and no matter what Clare do in this game, it will not carry much in the way of praise afterwards. That is the trade-off you make when you take on the heavy favourites mantle. It is also the reason that Clare should go out and win this game in the manner that the odds suggest they will. It is an opportunity to shake off the cobwebs of a dusty league campaign, and continue that upward curve. The top teams show no mercy. They do what they are supposed to and they do it well. Clare should go out in front of what will hopefully be a strong home support in Cusack Park, and flex their Division Two muscles. Waterford will be prepared and they will be difficult to break down. That should not stop Clare from putting them to the sword as early as possible and then concentrate on sending a message to the watching Peter Keane and the rest of the Kerry contingent that they are not going to come to Fortress Cusack Park and get anything handy.