THE only team Clare beat in last season’s Senior Hurling Championship will provide the opposition for the Banner men ins Sunday’s opening game in the 2016 National Hurling League.
Offaly will travel to Cusack Park in Ennis as underdogs and anything other than a comfortable win for Clare, recent impressive winners of the Munster League, will rank as a surprise.
That said, Davy Fitzgerald’s charges cannot take anything for granted against a Midland side that is under new management this season.
Tipperary’s Eamonn Kelly, a member of the Sixmilebridge management team that went through 2015 without suffering a defeat in either league or championship, will have learned a lot about Clare from his time here last season and while he said this week that Offaly are not as far down the road in their preparations as Clare, the Banner outfit will need to be wary of the visitors.
Clare will be without joint captain Tony Kelly and utility player Seadna Morey due to injury, while 2013 captain Pat Donnellan is ruled out for the season due to a cruciate knee injury.
A number of the Clare panel had Fitzgibbon Cup games on Tuesday and many of these have won their way through to the semi-finals, which will take place in two weeks’ time.
In the Munster League, the management team experimented with the full-back position, with Pat O’Connor and Jack Browne both having games there, while Cian Dillon and David McInerney operated in the half-back line so it will be interesting to see who gets the number three jersey this week.
Goalkeeper Pat Kelly got no game time in the league, with Donal Tuohy and Andrew Fahy sharing the duties and it remains to be seen if the Inagh-Kilnamona man will make his first competitive start of the season on Sunday.
The selectors have also been experimenting with the midfield partnership, with Gearóid O’Connell and David Reidy getting the nod in the team’s last two outings. Colm Galvin has struggled to find his best form since his return from the US, where he spent some time after Clare made their exit from the league last year.
In the forward line, Conor McGrath has made just two brief appearances this season and he may well get a call-up for Sunday’s game.
Colin Ryan and John Conlon impressed in the Munster League and are likely to be in the starting line-up this week.
Shane Dooley and Colin Egan are two of Offaly’s more experienced players and Midland followers will be looking to this pair to lead the way. Offaly teams are noted for their battling qualities and Clare can expect a stiff test but, at the end of the day, the Banner side look to have the stronger squad and should make a winning start to their drive to win back a place in the top division.
By Seamus Hayes, sports editor