Cyril Farrell: Rejuvenated Banner lay down gauntlet in tactical masterclass
Published 18/04/2016 | 02:30
Every pretender to Kilkenny's throne will have a spring in their step in training this week after Clare turned the hurling world upside down by demolishing the Cats and making them look beatable once again.
It was like watching a new and improved version of the Banner's victorious 2013 side. Right from the throw-in, they played at a ferocious pace, never giving Kilkenny an inch.
It was mile-a-minute stuff and they never let them settle for a second, swarming them in packs. A Kilkenny point would be barely gone over the bar and Patrick Kelly would have the puck-out gone out down the other end.
They had their game-plan and it worked to perfection with Davy Fitz getting his match-ups spot on. Oisin O'Brien kept Richie Hogan out of the game. Brendan Bugler matched TJ Reid physically, likewise David Fitzgerald on Walter Walsh. It was all planned meticulously and while that mightn't work every day, it worked yesterday.
This was Clare back to their old style, effectively playing with a sweeper, and they have it down to a fine art. Cian Dillon mopped up ball while Podge Collins was the bundle of energy that we all remember. It's great to see that enthusiasm back everywhere.
You have to be fit for their game-plan and they look super fit. The numbers on their back mean nothing, they were popping up everywhere and it's going to take a fair team to put a halt them.
Darach Honan is rejuvenated since being brought out the field while Conor McGrath is back to himself and had the freedom of the park yesterday. Colm Galvin is relentless and picked off some great scores from out the field.
Aaron Cunningham and John Conlon were lethal around the goal with Conlon using his strength advantage over Joey Holden to make things happen in the danger area. Clare got the goals but, typical Kilkenny, they were still fighting at the finish.
They never die but this a timely reminder for them. They were getting out of jail late in several league games and you can't keep doing that. Clare exposed them but they're definitely still the team to beat come summer time.
Brian Cody will have learned a lot and you'd write them off at your peril. They won't be caught one-on-one inside like that again and with the likes of Murphy, the Fennellys, Fogarty and Larkin to return, this defeat will be stored in the mind and revisited later.
Knowing Cody, he will not give in to the sweeper system no matter how badly they were exposed. They will keep their shape at the back but you will see more bodies dropping back to shore things up in future games.
He mightn't be heralded as the great tactician like Fitzy and Dónal Óg but he'll learn. They won't be dragged around like that again and no doubt there'll be skin and hair flying in Nowlan Park from here on in.
Yesterday wasn't knockout championship hurling, however, and it's only April. The Cats live to fight another day.
You could be looking at a new force in hurling with Clare playing Waterford in the Allianz NHL final - two teams that play with a very similar system. Some mightn't like the tactical affairs but it'll be thrilling to see how they play against each other. They might be the only ones who know how to beat each other's systems.
Both sides have been practising this style of play for a few years and they're much better at it than other teams. It takes time to bed it in and after Clare invented it, Derek McGrath followed suit and is preaching the same gospel.
Tadhg de Búrca usually does the sweeping for Waterford but he was freed further out the field with Darragh Fives filling his shoes without any fuss. They're clever on the ball and never waste it, always delivering a precision pass out from defence.
Limerick matched them for 35 minutes but couldn't kick on as the likes of Shane Bennett and Patrick Curran upped it a gear for Waterford. And you have to take your hat off to the Brick Walsh - he won nearly every puck-out that came his way and just seems to get better every year.
He was right in front of me in the first half and if he didn't win it clean he got fouled or flicked it out to someone. He's the heartbeat of that team and constantly does the hard yards for the younger lads to keep the scoreboard ticking over.
With a championship meeting of Waterford and Clare just around the corner many are expecting some shadow boxing in the league final but, knowing the mentality of the two managers, I'm certainly not one of them.
They'll both be going gung-ho. Clare haven't lost in any competition this year and they're not going to pull up, while winning back-to-back league titles would be a huge statement for a young Waterford outfit. It's the second most important hurling competition and neither county is swimming in national titles. It should be a cracker.
With the welcomed return of Tony Kelly and Pauric Mahony, it's exciting times ahead as two new teams set the pace. The question is will they be there on All-Ireland final day?
They've brought something exciting to the game but time will tell if that's enough to lift Liam MacCarthy come September.