While there might be quarter-final places up for grabs in the Clare senior hurling championship this weekend, it is the games in the losers round that I feel are the really big ones to look forward to.
Would we have thought before the championship started that after this weekend, Kilmaley, Newmarket, O’Callaghan’s Mills or Clooney-Quin could all be in the relegation pot? That is not a scenario they would have wanted to find themselves in so they now must deal with that and make sure they are ready. I know that the likes of Cratloe and Ballyea will be gunning to get the win this weekend so they can give themselves that four week break before the quarter-finals, because players in those clubs are also looking towards some really big games in the football championship.
In those losers round games, I think Clooney-Quin will have too much for Clarecastle. The key question for Clarecastle is who they will put on Peter Duggan. Are they going to sacrifice Steven O’Halloran to pick him up, or will they look at double marking him with O’Halloran and Patrick Kelly and take that chance of leaving one of the other Clooney-Quin forwards free? They might also look at deploying Jonathan Clancy as a sweeper to add another layer of protection to the backs, and that is a move they should maybe have considered the last day too. It is a massive game but if Clooney-Quin get back to their best and place their team to their strengths, they can get that forward line moving. Cillian Duggan might be back too and he is an option for them at either end of the field and he will add strength. Match-ups will be vital for Clarecastle and I do know that they won’t fear Clooney-Quin too much. They will realise that Clooney-Quin have made better progress than them in recent year but they won’t fear them. The group will have that mentality that they have a chance to pick up the win here but if Clooney-Quin are organised and are hurling well, then I expect they will have just a bit too much.
I think whoever is beaten in the game between Tulla and Wolfe Tones are really staring down the barrel of relegation. It is a massive game and it should be a titanic struggle. The manner of both their opening round defeats means there will be questions about how they have recovered, what kind of mind-frame are they in, and the draw for both teams might have accelerated that recovery process. Both know that this is 50/50 game to either stay in the championship or face down that relegation road. Of all the games this weekend, this is the one that both teams will feel they have a chance of winning.
If O’Callaghan’s Mills are down the two Cooney’s after their red cards the last day, it is a major blow to their hopes of taking out Newmarket. They will have to be a lot more disciplined this time around. They have made major strides in terms of their hurling and we saw that last year. Their discipline and approach was spot on too but it dropped the last day. Newmarket will just have a little bit too much for them I think.
Kilmaley’s showdown with Whitegate is a really good chance for them to get back on track. The last two weeks will have really hurt them in terms of the way they performed against Eire Óg. The way Eire Óg went about their business that day deserves huge credit, but the way Kilmaley performed will be something they need to address. This could be the start of a renewed drive for them in terms of their championship ambitions. They won’t be happy about going to Sixmilebridge for it, even though they have won plenty at underage level down there so it won’t be as daunting as a venue in deep East Clare. While I think Kilmaley will have enough to get over the line, they will need to be ready for a Whitegate team that will come out with all guns blazing and ready for a battle. They will look at how Eire Óg set up and will try to make it as tight as possible and turn it into a dogfight. Kilmaley won’t want to be pulled back into that relegation mire that they found themselves in two years ago and they should have the quality to get by. They will know that the safety blanket is now gone having already lost a game and that might help to refocus the minds and ensure that they are fully tuned in.
It is the quarter-finals that are on the minds of the other eight teams this weekend and there will be some crackers in that winners round. Looking first at the Eire Óg v Clonlara tie, the match-ups here are going to be so vital. The thing I will be really looking for is can Eire Óg put performances back-to-back. They were spirited and hungry against Kilmaley and worked to a game-plan and executed it brilliantly. They are now facing a Clonlara team that are a little more psychical down the spine of the team and will have a big threat up front, so there will need to be a plan for that. Eire Óg won’t be too put out about having the game on in Broadford either because it is a lovely surface and there is not that space for the Clonlara forwards to exploit like you would have in Cusack Park. The battle on the edge of the square with John Conlon and Aaron Fitzgerald will be vital and if Fitzgerald can break even, Eire Óg are in with a serious chance. The potential battles of Shane O’Donnell v Oisín O’Brien and Colm Galvin v David Reidy are also intriguing, but if I was over either team I would be trying to make sure those players are kept away from each other so they can do more damage. I think Clonlara have a lovely mix of youth and experience and have that siege mentality and are working for each other. They will be ready for another challenge and they should be moving on to a quarter-final spot.
I think Crusheen will be happy to have Feakle in Cusack Park because the space in there might not suit the Feakle defence. The full forward line of Cillien Mullins, Paddy Vaughan and Breffni Horner is really dangerous so that is going to be a major point for Feakle to deal with. If they can curb their influence on the contest then they have a chance of having a right go at it. The half-forward line for Crusheen is a strong one too with Fergus Kennedy, Ross Hayes and Conor O’Donnell and they can cause trouble for any defence when they click. It might mean Feakle will need a sweeper back to deal with that threat and they will need to get their match-ups right. They will be really spirited and are able to play with a bit of freedom now that relegation is out of the equation but I still think Crusheen will have too much up front, especially with the space in Cusack Park, and they should come out on top but not by much. If they get over Saturday, they might even emerge as dark horses for the Canon.
If Cratloe have corrected their full-back line issues that we saw in the first round win over Whitegate, then that will be a major plus. They will need to address it, because Inagh-Kilnamona’s most dangerous line is their full-forward line. Their front men hit 1-18 the last day and that is a massive score to put up. They have really good finishers so Cratloe’s recovery from the football will also be key. Their half-back line will need to sit that bit deeper to offer more protection than we saw the last day. Inagh-Kilnamona will have that bit of momentum now after winning the first round and while it was against a poor Tulla team on the day, they still needed to get back up on the horse after the Clare Cup loss. This Inagh-Kilnamona team will keep getting better the more games they play, but the big question for them is can they take that big scalp? For all their progress and all their underage wins, they are yet to really take down a big contender on the big day. They will need leaders to stand up if that is to happen and that is the challenge for them now. For Cratloe, Cathal McInerney has been the conductor for the forward line and it remains to be seen who is deployed to pick him up. This is going to be a really good game and we might be seeing a Cratloe side who now have everything in their arsenal to collect the Canon going at the fourth best team from last year in Inagh-Kilnamona. It will be tight but Cratloe’s need to win it and get that break that will help them in the football too.
I am really looking forward to the showdown of Ballyea and Sixmilebridge. Ballyea will need to go back to what they know best and the placing of their team will be vital. They will need to have that in order against a Sixmilebridge team who will be still unsure as to where they are at. We saw glimpses of what they can do the last day but it was against a poor Clarecastle team. They are trying to play a running game based a little on the Wexford style, and leaving that two man full-forward line inside with Malone and Golden rotating alongside Corry. I think Paul Flanagan will have to start in the full-back line for Ballyea because that is where the Bridge can do a lot of damage. If they get to grips with that, then Ballyea can nullify that threat. Tony Kelly and Gary Brennan will have to be around the middle of the field, and the potential of Seadna Morey picking up Kelly could be one to watch. One of the big questions for Sixmilebridge is who will be put in to take on Niall Deasy? If Paidi Fitzpatrick is back, that would be a serious addition to their side as he is brilliant defender and could do a man-marking job. The form of Deasy in the opening round will have alarm bells ringing around Sixmilebridge to see who will pick him up. It will be enthralling to watch the match-ups all over the field and both teams like to play the same type of game in running the ball, and both have the direct option too. It could simply come down to this. If the Bridge can nullify the Tony Kelly and Niall Deasy influence, they will win the game. If they can’t, then Ballyea win. Ballyea will want the win that bit more to help the football situation too, and that greater need just leads me to give them the nod with Tony Kelly hitting the headlines again.