In many respects it is hard to believe that this weekend is the start of Championship 2019 for the Banner.
With April dedicated to club games, it meant that thoughts of inter-county action were subconsciously moved to the back of the mind for a few weeks. It was only when the calendar ticked over into May that the reality seemed to dawn that there was less than a fortnight to go. The time for talking is almost over. It is time to hit series record on the Sunday Game once more.
Summer 2018 was one that some of the Clare senior hurling camp have described as being like a renaissance.
The lows of the Cork defeats, the highs of the Limerick win, the tailbacks in shops in the mad rush for tickets, the tailbacks near Moneygall on the road to Croke Park for the All-Ireland semi-final, Shanagher’s net-buster in the rain, McCarthy summoning his inner Domhnall O’Donovan, and that goal-post in Thurles. It was a year that enthralled, entertained and re-engaged the Clare hurling public with the euphoria that only sport can bring. This Sunday sees the rollercoaster grease up the chain once more as we get set for another captivating summer of hurling ahead.
The first Clare act in that play comes when the Banner will be part of the circus in Waterford for the first time in almost 25 years as Walsh Park plays host to Munster championship action. If you wanted a fixture with a few side stories, this is it. Clare have already seen Walsh Park in 2019 and it was not a happy hunting grounds as they copped a hiding in that National League quarter-final. The result aside, that fixture could yet prove to be something that will have been of benefit to Clare. Gerry O’Connor referenced the fact that the team will be staying in the south-east overnight ahead of the 2pm throw-in, a lesson learned from getting off the bus after a three hour journey last time out. The pitch in Walsh Park has undergone extensive remedial work in recent weeks, but while the surface will be different from the league game, chances are the surroundings will not have changed much. Anyone who has been to Walsh Park will tell you it is an intimidating place to play, with a claustrophobic feeling on the pitch as the crowd seem to be out there with you. It is not something that should pose much concern to Clare though who are well steeled to that type of scrutiny from playing in Fortress Cusack Park.
It will be an intriguing game, with Waterford under pressure to deliver the result in front of their home faithful. Paraic Fanning has had a positive start to his maiden voyage as Waterford manager as they reached the National League final before losing out to Limerick. The disappointment of 2018 is sure to be a factor for them, as they failed to go beyond the provincial stages having contested the All-Ireland final the previous year. The list of walking wounded they faced 12 months ago is not a concern this time around, with Fanning trotting out the usual “we have a few niggles but nothing major” line when questioned on the health status of his squad. From a Clare point of view, the news is not as positive with Ian Galvin and Conor McGrath among the high profile absentees.
With a new year comes new expectation, and while Clare’s league campaign ended at the quarter-final stage the real result was the unearthing of diamonds that will hopefully glisten long into the summer sun. Diarmuid Ryan has always had that star potential and he exploded onto the scene in the spring. Colin Guilfoyle is another who has captured the imagination, while Gary Cooney and Aidan McCarthy have emerged as hugely exciting talents with Shane Golden establishing himself as a player with an engine Henry Ford would gladly patent. Throw in the brute force that is John Conlon, the magician that is Tony Kelly, the magnet that is Shane O’Donnell, the character that is Peter Duggan, the distributor that is Colm Galvin and the rock that is Jack Browne and you cannot help but get giddy about what could lie in store.
Clare will miss the psychical presence of Conor Cleary from the centre-back position as he serves one of the most unjustified suspensions of recent times, and it will mean a bit of a reshuffle. The concern in that sense is that while management will have had the opportunity to try out alternatives in various challenge games, you simply cannot replicate the white heat of championship. Walsh Park is not the place for even the slightest bit of doubt, so that has to be a concern. Added to that is the fact that if the result does not go Clare’s way, there is no more action for them until the June Bank Holiday weekend when a Tipperary side who could have four points in the bag come to Cusack Park. It makes victory on day one that bit more important to make sure the fight goes on. Four points could easily see a team finish third in the final standings, which some would argue is the ideal spot to take. Look at what it did for Limerick last year.
June will be a tough month with those three games back-to-back. Tipperary, Limerick and Cork in that order. From a logistical perspective, it is not the worst schedule that could have been devised. Two home games either side of a short trip to the Ennis Road, albeit to face the number one team in the country. If Clare can pick up four of the eight points on offer, it could well be enough to prolong the summer. Anything less than that will bring the curtain down before Willie Clancy Week. Can they do it? Of course they can. Will they? To channel one American president as another’s visit looms large; Is Feidir Linn.