Thursday 21 September 2017

New heights beckon for sleeping giant

4 July 2015; Darach Honan, Clare. GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship, Round 1, Clare v Offaly. Cusack Park, Ennis, Co. Clare. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
4 July 2015; Darach Honan, Clare. GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship, Round 1, Clare v Offaly. Cusack Park, Ennis, Co. Clare. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Dermot Crowe

Where do you stand on Darach Honan, metaphorically speaking of course? He is, after all, six feet and seven inches tall.

In 2009, he was voted the hurler of the future on the back of a string of exhilarating performances for the Clare under 21 team. At 19, he was the story within the story of Clare's first Munster and All-Ireland title at the grade. He had a killer first touch, fast hands, lightning pace and a voracious appetite for goalscoring. In the All-Ireland semi-final against Galway, Joe Canning scored more, 4-7, but Honan's greater contribution from play, 2-4, managed to upstage him and steered Clare through.

Earlier in the Munster final at Fraher Field against Waterford, Honan's second goal was the pick of the day's scoring, coming near the end and securing the win. He cracked one in against Limerick before that and more often than not he scored spectacular goals, weaving past defences rather than bulldozing his way through. In the under 21 final against Kilkenny he was held scoreless but a constant focus of attention as the holders of that title relinquished their grip while striving to keep a leash on him.

The tight policing of him liberated others. His club colleague at Clonlara, John Conlon, scored 0-3, but Honan remained the player of the championship, thrilling to watch. That is how he announced himself and how he has come to be remembered. Is that how he wants to be remembered?

Seven years on he hasn't delivered on that enormous promise. In 2010, he played his first senior championship match for Clare, scoring 1-3 against Waterford, and hasn't hurled a senior match for the county as well since. There's a medley of reasons. Some feel they offer exoneration; others are less certain, wondering if the problem is within. But he is held in deep affection among the Clare following and in the National League quarter-final win over Tipperary there were signs that perhaps he is rediscovering some of that old magic.

There was no goal this time but his three points were critical and one involved a dummy which was straight out of his old bag of tricks. Conlon, playing closer to goal in a reverse of their earlier career positioning, got the first goal. Honan looked to be enjoying himself in a less cluttered zone. It was enough to excite hope that at 26 he might yet become the player he promised to be.

After the impressive senior championship debut against Waterford his impact has been sporadic. Where do you start with the reasons why? Injuries: there were plenty of those. His skyscraper frame left him prone to injury and he needed operations on both hips - an ordeal that has visited many younger players in recent years and asked valid questions about the demands placed on them. In 2013 he missed much of the year after needing a cartilage operation on his knee.

The explicit threat he offered with ball in hand ensured a hostile reception from opponents in dread of the potential consequences. If you were in a defence facing someone with the ability to latch on to a ball like he could, and leave you for dead, with the brazenness to keep going until the net was in sight, then force was necessary to stall the danger. And if one player wouldn't do then two or three might. The transition to senior inter-county hurling coincided with a period of his career when requests were placed on him from a multiplicity of teams. That took its toll. And then Clare did not motor so smoothly out of the gear of underage success and he suffered from that too.

In the first two seasons with the senior team, starting with his top-scoring act against Waterford in Munster, to the trouncing from Galway in Pearse Stadium that effectively ended the two-year term of Ger O'Loughlin in 2011, Clare were low on oxygen. In Davy Fitzgerald's first year managing, Honan didn't set the world on fire and in the second, when they went on to win the All-Ireland, he had his thunder stolen by Shane O'Donnell. The Ennis teenager stepped into his shoes and repaid the manager's faith with three goals in an All-Ireland final. This was O'Donnell's first season as a senior player, a year out of minor. Honan by then was in his fourth.

Honan started the All-Ireland final, scored an early point, but was well contained by Shane O'Neill and ended up the first player substituted. O'Donnell took his place in the replay but there was that late cameo, reminding those who might have forgotten, what he could do. With Clare under pressure in a ding-dong battle, Séadna Morey went on a relieving run out of defence and cleared into the path of Honan.

He gathered, seemed to run into difficulty, but managed to make ground and bundle the ball into the net for the clinching final goal. In the semi-final Honan scored a vital goal against Limerick, even if it was not a thing of beauty. In the Munster semi-final against Cork earlier in the year, he had the Cork defence in serious bother but since 2013 Clare's dip in form has left few players' reputations unscathed.

In the 2014 National League, Clare played seven games to reach the semi-finals and Honan only played in one and lasted less than half an hour. In last year's league, that ended in relegation in a play-off against Kilkenny, he only appeared as a sub in one of the games.

This year he cracked ribs in the first round against Offaly, missed the next two games and only started again in the quarter-finals against Tipperary two weeks ago. In that match he finished as Clare's highest point scorer from open play, with three.

"Darach made it up as he went along," as John Minogue, his former under 21 manager says. "I don't think half of us knew what he was going to do next and I am not sure he knew himself."

Spontaneity and individualism are still valued in hurling but the game has changed. Defences are stacked, space drastically reduced, and players are expected to provide a wider range of benefits to earn a place. The use of Honan in a deeper role against Tipperary is a case in point. The team's interests take precedence but the management appears to have taken a more patient approach to Honan, too, and given him time to be right and injury-free.

If he can find a run of form it significantly widens their attacking options come the summer.

"His club became successful," says Minogue, harking back to the transitional period when he was breaking into the Clare senior team. "Then he was playing senior and under 21 for club and county, playing with UCC, doing an awful lot of hurling. Everything appeared to happen for him in a big burst."

Comparisons might be made with Richie Hogan, one of Kilkenny's stars in their under 21 run in 2009. They are different players in style and build, and Kilkenny have had a far superior and settled senior playing environment since Honan came to prominence. But Hogan had to bide his time, introduced to the senior squad when just out of minor too and also having had to deal with injuries. Hogan, two years older, is now one of the top players in the game.

"The fear you'd have," says one former Clare player, "is that Darach is going to wake up one day and realise he is 30 and his career has passed him by."

Minogue believes Honan is now better able to handle the physicality of senior inter-county hurling. "He tended to pick up the ball, turn and take on guys," says Minogue of the player's under 21 days. "Once he had the first one beaten he wanted to beat the next guy and the next guy. And with the nature of senior hurling, not saying there was dirty play or that, but you have to take the knocks. Physically, he had a lot of developing to do. I think he has physically developed only in the last couple of years."

In 2014, he came on as Clare's last sub against Cork in the Munster Championship and scored a late consolation goal. He was introduced in the drawn qualifier match against Wexford, didn't score, and in the replay he started and scored 1-1. Last year he was a late sub against Limerick in their Munster semi-final defeat, played against Offaly, scored 0-3, and against Cork when they were eliminated, scoring a point. Today Kilkenny will offer a stern test but the litmus test is the championship.

Hurling is in the blood, his father Colm a former All-Star and winner of two league medals with the Clare team of the 1970s. In college Honan was a talented basketball player but hurling has always been his first love. "I think he has always tried to honestly serve the team," says one observer, prominent in recent successful underage teams. "But he has incurred a sequence of lay-offs over a number of years. I know that now he is in really, really good form, and has been training very well from what I've heard; his fitness level is the highest it has been. I think he has great qualities and from what I have seen he has always tried to contribute as much as he can to the team. People might have perceived him as more of an individual.

"The management have been patient. They are playing him in new positions. Rather than being the guy with his back to goal receiving ball and man at the same time, they are moving him to areas of the pitch where he will have more options, rather than one option only. I think what they are trying to do is very clever - they're trying to expand his game. Defenders copped they could not beat him for pace and they stood off him and he would shoot for a point at best. If you look at TJ Reid and Richie Hogan, they are finishers but also creators. (Brian) Cody has developed them into being much more rounded players. Any day you watch Kilkenny you have no idea where TJ Reid is going to play. That is the way the game has gone."

Ger O'Loughlin, who introduced him to the team in 2010, has waited like everyone else for Honan to flower. "He performed very well for us to be fair to him. Unfortunately, injuries have followed him and when that happens regularly your form and maybe your thinking get affected. In 2009, he looked he would be right up there with the best players we have ever had. We are all still waiting for that to happen. He is certainly showing some good signs in the league of late."

Minogue says the Tipperary game suited him down to the ground. "It was a really good day, the conditions ideal, with the sun shining, a good crowd; you had Tipp in town, a very good atmosphere. Darach responds to that kind of occasion. I think Darach gets a bit of a buzz out of that, He certainly showed the last day, especially in the second half, that he was taking more responsibility."

Provided he stays injury-free the best may be yet to come.

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