Clare have been dealt a double blow ahead of Sunday’s National Hurling League final, with John Conlon and Paul Flanagan both ruled out.
Conlon, one of the stars of the win over Kilkenny, has not recovered from a leg injury picked up in that game and, at this stage, he is also a doubt for the Munster championship semi-final on June 5. The injury is understood to be similar to that which kept Tony Kelly and Jack Browne out of action for almost two months.
Paul Flanagan will also miss the final due to concussion.
Discussing Clare’s involvement in the 2016 National Hurling League final is not something that was expected when the competition got underway back in February. Yet here they are, putting the final touches to their plans for a tilt at title-holders Waterford at Semple Stadium in Thurles on Sunday at 3.30pm.
Undefeated in 11 competitive outings this season, Clare will go into Sunday’s decider determined to make it 12. Waterford, however, carry the favourites’ tag. They have reached the final for the second successive year on the back of some impressive wins over Division 1 opposition including Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork. In the semi-final, they stepped up a gear in the second half and pulled away from Limerick. Nine players shared in their impressive tally of 3-23 in that game.
There is no denying the strength in Waterford’s panel with Austin Gleeson, Tadhg de Burca, Shane Bennett, Colin Dunford and Patrick Curran added to the experience of Michael Walsh, Kevin Moran, Stephen O’Keeffe and Noel Connors. The talented Pauric Mahoney has returned after a serious injury. He got some game time in the semi-final, while Maurice Shanahan is another who has shown that he is a key member of the squad.
Injury ruled both David McInerney and Shane O’Donnell out of the game with Kilkenny. They remain doubtful for the final, as does Cratloe’s Conor Ryan, who was again an absentee from club and county action at the weekend. All four were key members of the team that won the All-Ireland title in 2013.
On the credit side, Tony Kelly has returned from injury and he was hugely impressive when introduced for the final quarter against Kilkenny. He is expected to get more game time this week and may well be included from the start.
Kelly played in a challenge game on Saturday last in Cloyne, County Cork to mark the official opening of new facilities at that club and the Ballyea man scored 0-3.
Seadna Morey and Jack Browne also returned to action in that tie, having missed most of the league campaign due to injury. The likelihood is that they will be in the matchday squad for the final.
The starting line-up is unlikely to be named before Saturday but the expectation is it won’t show much change from that which started against Kilkenny.
Clonlara’s Oisin O’Brien, a relative newcomer, was a revelation in that outing and he is again expected to play at corner-back. If Clare continue with the same defensive strategy, then Pat O’Connor will be at full-back, with joint team captain Cian Dillon continuing in the role of sweeper, which he has carried out so impressively.
Conor McGrath, Colm Galvin, Darach Honan, Aaron Cunningham and Podge Collins all excelled against Kilkenny and look set to be retained.
Waterford for the most part are injury-free and manager Derek McGrath is expected to name a team along the lines of that which faced Limerick. It will take a big effort on behalf of the Banner men to get the upperhand on the likes of Gleeson, de Burca, Bennett and Curran.
Contrary to speculation, I don’t expect there will be any shadow boxing ahead of their June 5 Munster semi-final date.
This really has all the ingredients for a thrilling contest between two counties that have been so close to major honours on many occasions but have come up short more often than they would like.
Kilkenny were the hottest of favourites going into the semi-final but Davy Fitzgerald and his management team put a plan in place which the Noresiders were unable to deal with. No doubt they will have planned a strategy for Sunday’s final but, then, so too will Derek McGrath and his mentors.
Clare have blown away the favourites in a few outings this year but the additional injury issues may prove too much on this occasion.