With the way the championship has unfolded, fate has been rather favourable to Clare. It goes without saying that Brian Lohan’s side would have loved to have captured provincial silverware and certainly would have appreciated lifting the inaugural Mick Mackey Cup much more.
However, apart from that set-back, the hand of destiny has thrown up Leinster duo Wexford and Kilkenny, two sides that Clare would arguably have handpicked themselves if they had the choice to potentially tee up a historic fifth competitive outing against Limerick in the All-ireland decider.
All that speculation aside, the reality is that while the Wexford game was expectedly close, they were possibly the perfect team for Clare to pip at the post too.
Not reaching anywhere near the heights of their previous provincial displays would have meant an early exit against a much clinical side.
However, Wexford left a wounded Banner in the contest so when Brian Lohan’s side did manage to find their groove with that grandstand finish, a fourth successive championship victory for Clare over the Wexicans inevitably ensued.
Equally, Clare, while not having played Kilkenny at championship level since 2006, have a good recent record against Kilkenny as they head into Saturday’s tie, backed by a six match unbeaten run against Brian Cody’s side since 2016.
Now as Brian Lohan himself admitted this week, National League fare can be somewhat misleading as Ballyhale’s near-perennial All-Ireland Club Championship bid has meant that the Cats haven’t always been at full strength for their league outings.
Still, on a more basic tactical level, Kilkenny have found Clare’s style of play difficult to combat in recent seasons.
And while there has been a noted evolution in this year’s side as the Leinster champions look to increasingly work the ball through the lines in the middle third in order to try and match, let’s be honest, Limerick, how far they have progressed will only be realised on Saturday evening.
So where do the major areas of focus lie for both sides?
Kelly set to have his own Butler
They’ve been regularly compared and contrasted in recent years but finally arguably the two best attacking forces in the country Tony Kelly and TJ Reid directly lock horns on Saturday.
They operate in the same zone of being able to play anywhere and in Kelly’s case at his best, everywhere. However, with Reid now being 34, he tends to be more a targetman at either full-forward or centre-forward.
Clearly restricted through injury, Clare’s talisman didn’t budge from his full-forward berth for large tracts of their quarter-final against Wexford until he simply had to in the final quarter so how mobile the Ballyea man will be on Sunday could dictate a lot about Clare’s fortunes.
One thing’s for certain, while Kelly’s inspirational leadership has surpassed anything the Ballyhale clubman has produced so far this year, TJ has the edge on placed ball consistency which in itself is an effective tool in a tight contest.
It certainly kept Kilkenny’s noses in front of Galway in the Leinster Final so whether Tony Kelly or Peter Duggan are handed the free-taking duties from the start will be noteworthy.
Depending on where Reid starts, Conor Cleary or John Conlon would be the obvious choices due to his aerial prowess while Kilkenny’s main man-marker all year has been newcomer Mikey Butler who much like his shadowing of Cathal Mannion in the provincial decider, means that he won’t mind drifting out to halfway to follow Tony Kelly if required.
Utilising Kelly as a decoy and exploiting the space could well be an ace card if that direct man-marking mission is to materialise.
Perceived defensive fur-ailties
Going on Clare’s scintillating provincial form, that ability to cause mayhem in opposition defences has been a fundamental part of their success.
The elusive movement and off the shoulder running of Tony Kelly, Ryan Taylor and David Fitzgerald in particular have effectively either carried possession or created gaps for other to prosper.
However, Wexford differing approach of a variety of man-markers allied to Clare’s Munster Final hangover will certainly have provided Brian Cody with food for thought.
In addition, considering Wexford’s route one success for a brace of second half goals last time out, expect Kilkenny to try and load the full-forward line physically at stages in order to perhaps capitalise too.
The thing is that with Lee Chin increasingly providing a one-man full-forward unit, full-back Cleary was dragged out the field in pursuit of Conor McDonald and therefore wasn’t in position to attack those high deliveries that would normally be adeptly dealt with.
A sharper Clare performance would negate any perceived fault-lines as evidenced in the Munster series as up against Limerick, the most formidable force over the past five years twice, the Banner never took a back step once despite being tested to their optimum.
Reclaiming that form will be critical to advancement as up against a relatively inexperienced Kilkenny rearguard, Clare certainly won’t fear going for the jugular.
Fundamentally, Kilkenny won’t have faced such a multi-faceted attacking unit heretofore as while they prevailed against Galway in the Leinster decider, big provincial group tests were both failed against Wexford and the Tribesmen.
All-Ireland Senior Hurling
(Extra-Time if Necessary)
Kilkenny v Clare at Croke Park Dublin,
(Fergal Horgan, Tipperary)