The wait for a return to competitive GAA action is now almost over, with just over two weeks to go until the 2021 National Hurling League gets underway.
The draws for the Munster championship made this week saw Brian Lohan’s charges sent on something of a revenge mission, as they will meet Waterford once more in the provincial quarter final. The winners of that tie will face Liam Sheedy’s Tipperary in the last four, with All Ireland champions Limerick taking on Cork in the other side of the draw.
For Colm Collins, his eighth year in charge will see him facing Kerry for the sixth time with his squad set to travel to Killarney for a quarter final showdown. The winners of that tie will meet the reigning provincial champions Tipperary in the last four, while last years beaten finalists Cork take on Limerick in the other semi final tie.
November 21 was the last time that the Clare senior hurlers were together in a collective sense, with that date marking their exit from the 2020 All Ireland championship at the hands of Waterford.
For John Conlon, that wait to return to the field has been longer than anyone else on the panel though, with the 2018 All Star missing out on all of last year’s championship action for both club and county after undergoing surgery on a knee injury just before the initial Covid-19 lockdown was announced last Spring.
The Clonlara man is thankfully back to full fitness now and with the squad returning to training this week, he feels everyone is looking forward to finally getting the year underway.
“It is exciting now to be back on the field. We have not met up really since around Christmas time so it is exciting to get back. I think we all have a few nerves and a bit of apprehension towards it in the sense that we have had four or five months without having had the collective sessions or games. It is great news for everyone though. It is going to be a quick, short, sharp campaign really. We have the three week run in to it, but the week before the games, we will probably be tapering down to try and be ready for those big games and make sure that everything is right for them. I am sure the management will want to be able to chop and change around the players in order to see everyone on the panel as much as they can. We all want to be playing games so the more games you have, the better. We will have the five league games and hopefully plenty in the championship so hopefully there will be loads of games over the coming weeks and there won’t be any excuses” he noted.
Counties had been given the option of a longer lead in time to the start of the leagues, but the majority of those consulted were in favour of a shorter training block which would allow a longer league campaign. Conlon outlined that while a league campaign with more games will allow management more leeway to try out different players, he would have liked to have seen the provincial series run in the round robin format.
“I would maybe have preferred to play the three league games and then go into a round robin Munster championship. That would have given you seven games in total and then maybe a Munster final. I suppose the GAA had to make decisions and while I would have preferred it that way, you probably have to give everyone a chance and get games into people. For management, they haven’t seen lads since last November so they don’t really know where their team is at. It will take a few games to get used to their team again and let them see lads in different positions” he stated.
When Clare begin their league campaign on the weekend of May 8, it will likely mark a first appearance for Conlon in almost 14 months. He is confident that he is ready for the year ahead.
“I can’t say that I have not put in every last detail and trained as hard as I have ever trained in my life so I am looking forward to being back on the field. I have done everything to the letter of the law and I am feeling really strong and really fit so maybe this break has added a few years to my career. I have promised myself that I am going to enjoy the last few years I have with Clare and my club, so I just cannot wait to get back on the field. It was very difficult having to watch on last year, particularly after being made captain at the start of the year which was a great honour. I was part of the team in terms of training and doing the ball drills but I had to step out for the contact stuff. I was doing all my stuff with the S&C team and most nights I was trying to get in done before training so that once the main training started, I could join in for as much of it as possible. I was trying to push lads on and help them along but it was a weird dynamic. It was strange being at home in your sitting room watching games and I remember during the Laois game, I just started making lunch to distract myself because I found myself getting annoyed watching it. It was frustrating, particularly because I have been around the team for so long and always been part of it. I was able to train with them during the week but couldn’t meet up with them at the weekend for the games. It was frustrating but that is in the past now so hopefully I can be part of every game this year” said the Shannon based primary school teacher.
The advent of online based training over the last year is something that Conlon feels that should not be parked forever now that on field action can resume.
“In one way, it was enjoyable because I am a person who loves to train on their own anyway. A lot of the travelling of going to the various training venues could be cut out early in the season and let lads work on things individually. The likes of running techniques or speed sessions and stuff like that could all be done remotely. It could be a way of looking forward that teams would not need to be training four nights a week. There could be two collective sessions and have lads working on their own then for another two sessions which would be tracked through the GPS. It could be something to look into for the future, which would put more responsibility on players and make sure that the work is being put in. Going to training can take up to four hours by the time you travel there and come home. It would let some lads get the training done after work and then have their evening free. I think it is all about keeping the mind fresh and I think while everyone has worked really hard, we do feel fresh going into it and there is a buzz about it. People will enjoy it and will really relish the experience” he said.
This week also saw the new Club Clare hurling and camogie supporters group revealing that their fundraising efforts has passed the €100,000 mark with over 1500 members signed up to date. Conlon, whose partner Michelle Caulfield lined out for the Clare senior camogie side in recent years, feels having both squads benefiting from the inititiave is a progressive and positive move.
“They have great people involved in the group and it is great to see all the people who have got behind the project and supported it. It is a great thing to see set up and it is really good to see Clare hurling people rowing in behind it. We have had a lot of negativity in the papers over the last few weeks so it is good to see a positive side to things. Hopefully it will help to get us back to the top and having everything we need to do that going forward. It is great to see the camogie on board too. Michelle was involved over the last few years and they struggled to get basic things that we take for granted as men, and that is not right in my eyes. It is great to see Club Clare doing that for camogie, and it means that all players in the county, whether it is hurling or camogie, can strive to be the best on the field”, he concluded.