LONG before Sunday dawns, one of the main items of interest will be where Clare’s opening league match is played.
Recent inclement weather has placed a premium on the use of Cusack Park. Last Sunday’s Division 4 National Football League game had to be moved to Miltown Malbay, which will have helped to protect Cusack Park but it will not guarantee its use this weekend.
In fact, the pitch itself might be playable but if, for example, the area behind the terraced stand is flooded, that might present a health and safety issue.
Hopefully, come the weekend, the weather will be more compliant but if Cusack Park is deemed unplayable, where the game is played will become a matter of some intrigue.
When the Waterford Crystal final against Tipperary had to be moved from Sixmilebridge, the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick was the chosen venue. The fact that happened indicates the paucity of top level floodlit playing fields in Clare.
However, the Waterford Crystal is merely a warm-up tournament, so nobody was going to get overly excited as to where it was played.
Sunday is different. A chastened Kilkenny and an apparently hyper-motivated Brian Cody are due in Ennis. If the pitch or stadium is not up to hosting that game, it would have far-reaching consequences. On the hurling front, Clare might have to cede home advantage, which would be a serious setback, while the economic effect would also be felt in Ennis.
A crowd of some 10,000 is expected in the county town and their spend will be gratefully received by the business community. So let’s hope the weather improves between now and then.
Provided it goes ahead, the country will be watching what unfolds. Once Clare dispensed with their over-reliance on the short game last year and played their more natural high paced, supremely skilful brand of hurling, they moved the game onto a new level.
That plinth was previously occupied by Kilkenny, whose hurling, at their peak, was more physical but splashed with the genius of Shefflin, Walsh and Larkin.
Whatever happens on Sunday, it won’t be possible to make defining judgements on either team. As the year unfolds, however, it will be fascinating to see how Clare evolve.
Will the entire panel be able to sustain the level of supreme commitment required to compete for Liam MacCarthy let alone retain it? If a player wasn’t on the starting 15 last year and doesn’t make it this year, will he hang around indefinitely?
Cathal McInerney, Liam Markham and Seadna Morey, for example, won’t want to spend another 12 months sitting on the bench, hoping for a few minutes here and there. Of course, the problem is that there are potentially top class players now on the panel who were not part of it last year. Some are bound to be overtaken by the new boys, who won’t lack confidence given the fact they have two U-21 All-Ireland medals already in their collection.
2013 was an incredible year, for which players and management have received accolade heaped upon accolade. They deserved all of that. Their hurling lit up the championship, while the manner in which they have dealt with success is a credit to them.
The difference this year is that every other serious hurling county will be out to get them. Their four Munster rivals, as well as Galway, Kilkenny and Dublin, will all feel that if Clare can do it, they can do it.
Luckily for Clare, the hurling championship is not nearly as competitive as the football. However, the top echelon of hurling teams are at a level above the top inter-county football teams. Football is more competitive and evenly spread but, as evidenced last year, it has not come close to the standard of hurling at the very highest level.
That skill level might not be obvious on Sunday, especially if Cusack Park cuts up and if the weather is not conducive to hurling. Still, thousands will pour in, hoping to see the best of Clare and Kilkenny going head-to-head, whatever the weather.
Brian Cody and Davy Fitzgerald might find the Cusack Park sideline is a bit more restricted than Croke Park.
The evenings are getting a bit longer and Kilkenny are coming to take on the All-Ireland champions. Can it get much better than this? It’s hard to see how but the immediate hope is that the weather plays ball so that Clare and Kilkenny can do likewise.