The race to find a new home for the Canon Hamilton Trophy will begin in earnest this weekend, with eight games down for decision. Eight first round games in the intermediate championship will also take place.
While all 16 teams will still be in the title race come Sunday evening, an opening round victory will mean the threat of relegation will have been eliminated. Introduced two years ago, one of the eight first-round losers will be relegated to the intermediate grade for next season. The same format applies to the intermediate championship this year.
Following the first round, the eight winners will be drawn against each other and the eight losers will also be drawn to face each other, with the four losers here battling it out in a relegation play-off.
At least one of last year’s semi-finalists will find themselves in the losers’ round, as first round games see Clonlara, beaten finalists for the past two years, take on Feakle, who went out to Ballyea in the semi-final last October.
Last year’s beaten intermediate finalists Clonlara face Sixmilebridge in the opening round in the intermediate championship.
Sixmilebridge will have two teams in this competition, as they won the junior A title last year and opted to field two teams in intermediate.
A number of clubs have injury concerns. Clonlara’s Darach Honan, a member of Clare’s All-Ireland-winning side in 2013, hasn’t hurled this year and is unlikely to be in action due to injury.
Ballyea’s Cathal Doohan, one of the key players in their memorable run last season, is an absentee, as he is spending a year in Australia.
Ballyea face Wolfe Tones this weekend in a game that also caries Clare Champion Cup points. The sides were due to meet in the league last week but agreed to double up.
Ballyea were in a similar situation last year, when they doubled up with Éire Óg in the opening round of the senior championship, a game that went to extra time. Éire Óg won that game but Ballyea bounced back to claim a first ever county title. They followed up with a Munster title, before losing to Cuala in the All-Ireland final. Incidentally, Cuala were defeated in the opening round of the Dublin championship last weekend.
Cratloe will be without the injured Conor Ryan, while there are doubts about the fitness of Cathal McInerney and Conor McGrath, who missed last week’s league game.
Clare’s All-Ireland-winning captain Pat Donnellan, who missed last year’s championship because of a cruciate injury, is available, which is a big boost to his club, who face Éire Óg in the opening round.
By sports editor Seamus Hayes