IN a season of contrasting fortunes for Clare hurling, the prospect of contesting an All-Ireland final didn’t appear likely a few months ago.
Thanks to three magnificent performances, the county U-21 team take on defending champions, Kilkenny at Croke Park on Sunday with the All-Ireland crown as the prize. Such has been Clare’s form in beating Limerick, Waterford and Galway that they are considered to have an excellent chance of taking a first ever All-Ireland title in this grade.
It won’t be easy, particularly since Kilkenny have over half of the side that won this title 12 months ago. Ritchie Hogan, who scored a couple of points in last Sunday’s thrilling senior final victory over Tipperary, is their best known player.
Given all the disappointments endured by Clare in this grade over the years and particularly last season, people feared to be overly optimistic at the outset of the campaign.
The Munster semi-final win over Limerick was expected, although there was some concern at the amount of scores conceded by the Clare defence.
Clare stepped up a gear for the Munster final against Waterford two weeks later. Clonlara’s Darach Honan and Nicky O’Connell, in particular, shone as Clare finally made the breakthrough for a first provincial title at U-21 level.
Those in Thurles for the All-Ireland semi-final against Galway were privileged to witness a thrilling contest, certainly a contender for game of the year. After extra time, Clare had toppled a Galway side led by Joe Canning, who scored 4-7.
Injuries pose concerns ahead of the big game. Cratloe’s Seán Collins is ruled out due to a shoulder injury. Darach Honan, man of the match in the last two outings, is carrying a hamstring injury but I expect that he will start.
There are also doubts about Cathal Chaplin, who suffered a broken finger in the opening minute of the game against Galway.
It is expected that Cian Dillon will start at full-back, with Eamonn Glynn in the corner in place of James Gunning. Domhnall O’Donovan and Nicky O’Connell are certainties for the half-back line but it remains to be seen who will complete that line with Gunning, Patrick O’Connor and Cathal Chaplin all in the shake-up.
Liam Markham lost out on a place for the semi-final but he is back in contention for starting place and could come in at wing-back or at midfield.
The vacancy in the attack due to the injury to Collins is likely to be filled by either Conor Tierney or Conor McGrath, although Tubber teenager Pat O’Connor could also come into the reckoning.
The form that Clare have shown on their way to the final clearly suggests that they have the ability to dethrone the champions. It won’t be easy but at the final whistle, I believe that Clare followers will be rushing onto the pitch to congratulate the new All-Ireland U-21 hurling champions.
Team manager, John Minogue is confident that Clare can score a famous win.
“We have no problem facing Kilkenny in Croke Park. In fact, we are looking forward to it. We played them in Nowlan Park earlier in the year. They [Clare] stood shoulder-to-shoulder and hip-to-hip then. There was a Kilkenny ref and he didn’t blow the whistle too often,” said John.
“Obviously, Kilkenny will be hot favourites going on all the underage success, the standard of their hurling and their club championship and everything,” he went on.
“We have proved so far that we can compete with any team that has come up against us and we hope that we can carry that form into the final.”
Does the fact that there are high expectations put extra pressure on the team?
“I don’t know really. It’s probably the players who are feeling more of that when they go back to their clubs. We hope that the players are not put under too much pressure.
“They are a level-headed bunch of guys and they have done everything we have asked of them. We will be asking them to concentrate on what’s ahead of them and forget about what distractions might be there,” he responded.
“Any time you get to Croke Park it is good for Clare hurling. I think that these lads going back to their clubs will inspire others to say that they can do the same if they train hard. It is going to have an effect on the younger kids in the parishes of these players.
“They can see 18, 19 and 20-year-olds out playing for Clare. Look at Conor McGrath and Patrick O’Connor, who are still minors. I hope this has a very positive influence on the younger people in the clubs, that they will take up a hurley and continue to hurl and know that you can get to an All-Ireland final if you put in the effort,” the Clare manager concluded.