National Hurling League Preview: Clare v Kilkenny
Clare head to Nowlan Park on Sunday afternoon as the only unbeaten team in Section 1B of the National Hurling League and with one foot firmly planted in the knockout stages.
Last weekend’s win over Laois saw Brian Lohan’s side move clear at the top of the standings, and if they avoid defeat against Kilkenny it will see them into at least a quarter-final spot with a round to spare.
It was expected that given the elongated nature of the process to appoint the Wolfe Tones man, it could take some time for Clare to settle into their stride. It might be only February, but the signs are all there that there is a renewed vigour about the team that has manifested itself quickly. The vibes from the camp are that the training methods are simple, with an emphasis on honesty and work-rate as the key factors. That has been evident in how Clare have had to battle to victory in their last two outings in particular, holding off a strong surge from Wexford before navigating through Storm Dennis last weekend. At this time of year, that level of work-rate it is all you can ask for.
Lohan has also used the league to run the rule over his squad and that has been a major positive. That test has not only come in terms of changing personnel, but the trialling of new faces in key positions has also given plenty food for thought. The biggest success story to date is probably the switch of David McInerney to the middle of the field. The Tulla man has been tried at full-back and centre-back in recent years, but looks to be really enjoying the new found freedom in that more advanced role. His partnership there with a rejuvenated Tony Kelly looks to be getting stronger with each passing game and the qualities that each man brings seem to dovetail perfectly. That was to be seen last Sunday when McInerney got in the slightest of hooks as Laois were trying to set up an attack, and it was Kelly who profited as he picked up the break and fired over from distance. The dynamic between them means that Kelly can go wandering looking for that loose ball to capitalise on, while McInerney’s defensive instincts mean he is watching the space.
David Reidy spoke before the Munster League got underway about the hunger being back and he wasn’t lying. He has shown no signs of being away with some excellent displays so far, and brings an added dynamic to the middle third. David Fitzgerald’s rebirth as an intercounty centre forward looks to be a winner too, with the big Inagh-Kilnamona man making a nuisance of himself at every available opportunity. The injury he picked up at the weekend will likely see him sidelined for the trip to Nowlan Park, and could create the opening for Domhnall McMahon to step into the breach. He made a big impact from the bench against Laois and could be rewarded for that with a starting berth this time around.
Lohan has plenty support too from his Wolfe Tones clubmates with Aaron Cunningham showing his class within minutes of his return, while Aron Shanagher sparkled in the rain with three points when introduced from the bench. His psychical presence up front offers Clare the route one outlet, and it looked effective. At the other end, Liam Corry took his chance to impress with both hands with a solid performance in the full-back line, while fellow debutante Eibhear Qulligan didn’t put a foot wrong between the sticks.
The challenge awaiting Clare this weekend is arguably the biggest of the campaign so far, with Kilkenny likely to be smarting from their loss in Wexford Park. Brian Cody doesn’t accept defeat too readily, and with the knockout stages of the league moving into sharp focus he may opt to roll out the Ballyhale and Tullaroan contingents for their first showing. It is going to be a major test for Clare, but there is no reason to think that they won’t have enough in the locker to make it four from four.