Ger Loughnane's Kilkenny barbs may backfire on Banner this weekend
Clare legend's jibe will rile Kilkenny and add to intrigue ahead of League semi-finals
Published 14/04/2016 | 02:30
Ger Loughnane's assertion that the All-Ireland treble-seeking Kilkenny team is nowhere near as good as previous sides that attempted the feat could backfire on his native Clare in Sunday's Allianz League semi-final.
For while Kilkenny always maintain that their sole motivation is to win the next game, Loughnane's incendiary intervention provides an extra edge for a squad preparing to take on a Clare team also regarded as serious contenders for the All-Ireland title.
Waterford and Limerick are rising up the rankings too, which increases the significance of their clash in a season when four of Kilkenny's biggest rivals, Tipperary, Galway, Cork and Dublin, failed to reach the League semi-finals.
It leaves Kilkenny, the hardiest of hurling annuals, facing different challenges as they attempt to win the League for the fourth time in five seasons.
The main interest for neutrals at Sunday's semi-final double-header in Thurles will centre on the level of performance produced by Clare, Limerick and Waterford as they seek to supplant Tipperary and Galway as Kilkenny's main pursuers heading into the Championship
Waterford could claim that they are in that zone too so the focus will be on whether they have further refined their game to take them to a higher level than last year, when they came up five and six points short respectively against Tipperary and Kilkenny in the Munster final and All-Ireland semi-final.
They were regarded as a work-in-progress in 2015, which adds to the pressure on Derek McGrath to devise ways of extracting more from his young, exciting squad.
The signs have been good so far this year, with Waterford losing only one (to Dublin) of six League games. Even then, they had already qualified for the semi-finals, which may have altered their focus. They later drew with Galway and beat Wexford.
Meanwhile, Limerick, who ran Kilkenny to two points in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final, have also seen their stock rise dramatically after reaching the League's last four with an impressive win over Dublin in Croke Park.
It was achieved with the aid of a tweaked tactical approach, which saw Ronan Lynch, one of several stars in Na Piarsaigh's All-Ireland club final win over Cushendall, deployed very successfully as a sweeper.
It worked well in a challenge game against Galway a week earlier and was even more effective against Dublin, who had beaten Limerick in League and Championship last year.
The League quarter-final win has sent optimism soaring in Limerick where the failure to escape from 1B (they lost the last game to Clare after having Barry Nash sent off late in the first half) is now regarded as no more than a temporary setback.
Meanwhile, Waterford, the defending League champions, not only want to reach another final but also to flash out clear signs that their progress indicator is still on the way up.
They go into Sunday's game having suffered only one defeat in 14 League outings since February last year. It's a hugely successful run, which leaves the squad overflowing with self-belief.
They - and indeed Limerick - would love to get a shot at Kilkenny but Clare have first call on that as they seek to maintain a 100pc record this season.
They have already won 10 successive games in the Munster and Allianz Leagues, building a confidence platform which wasn't there last year.
And while Davy Fitzgerald won't admit it publicly, bringing a League title back to Clare for the first time since 1978 is now a real target.
The Munster Championship draw, which pits Clare against Waterford in the semi-final on June 5, comes five weeks after the League final, which is ideal in terms of re-tuning the squad.
Also, Clare would love to make a bold statement of intent against Kilkenny, who thwarted them twice last year.
Indeed, League roles could so easily have been reversed this year as Clare were unlucky against Kilkenny twice last season.
They went down by a point in the final 1A game in Nowlan Park and then lost the toss for venue for a relegation play-off, forcing them to return to Kilkenny's home base a week later, when they again lost by a point.
Clare's style, which involved taking Kilkenny on with real pace, came very close to dispatching the All-Ireland champions into the relegation chute, only to be thwarted late on by a point from Cillian Buckley.
Clare will probably rely on the same basic game-plan, albeit with some adjustments to match the different occasion.
While Clare have more to gain from reaching a League final, Kilkenny's desire for year-round control ensures that they will be on full alert, especially against opposition with a proven All-Ireland pedigree, whom they might meet for a bigger prize later on.
In the circumstances, Fitzgerald would, no doubt, have preferred if Loughnane had said nothing to provide Kilkenny with an extra side-bet to boost the motivation pot.
Loughnane's comment that "a team with that talent should not be winning an All-Ireland" was actually a criticism of Kilkenny's opponents, but they won't see it that way.
That will certainly apply to the forward line where only TJ Reid and Richie Hogan drew any praise from Loughnane.
Brian Cody won't need to mention it to the other attackers, all of whom will be doubly determined to prove that while they may not impress Loughnane, they can still outwit the best defenders his county has to offer.
His description of Kilkenny as "functional beyond belief" won't have gone down well either.
Remarkably, the last four Clare-Kilkenny League clashes have produced one-point victories. Kilkenny won twice last year and also in 2013 while Clare were successful in their first outing as All-Ireland champions in Cusack Park in February 2013. Clare's previous win was in 2005.