Division 2 contenders know they can only further education at higher level
There is much more than a National League title at stake today in Semple Stadium for both Clare and Wexford. Players on both sides know where they want to hurl next year -- and that's in Division 1.
Last September, Clare won the All-Ireland U21 title and in doing so tasted a national success for the first time since the 1997 All-Ireland final. Darach Honan, along with nine members of the winning team, now feature on the senior panel who will face Wexford today. However, Honan feels that Division 2 hasn't been very beneficial to improving the standard of hurling in Clare.
"I think that if we had been playing in Division 1 it would have helped us," says the prolific forward. "We have had some tight, decent games but we were never really testing ourselves against the best. To bridge the gap and make the step up, we need to be in Division 1.
"There is more of a bite in 21s hurling than Division 2. It's a harder and faster game. If we don't get out of Division 2, it will be detrimental to our youthful side. It would be a big setback to the work we have done this year if we don't make it into Division 1."
Clare have contested two Division 1 league finals in the past decade. In 2001, they lost to Tipperary and in 2006 they came up short against Kilkenny. This year, excluding Wexford, their toughest opposition was Antrim and they face Waterford in four weeks' time in the Munster championship. Davy Fitzgerald's men have been able to sharpen up for the championship by beating Offaly and Dublin and drawing with Tipperary and Cork.
Not getting back to the top flight will be seen as a disaster for both sides, however, so hunger and desire won't be an issue today. There should be no question of players 'minding' themselves with one eye on their forthcoming provincial campaigns.
Wexford captain Diarmaid Lyng has been on the county panel for almost a decade and he knows how valuable a good competitive league can be for championship preparation.
"It's important for speed work," he says. "The game in Division 1 is a lot faster. You look at Galway -- they have had seven quality games so far this season and we have only had an odd one. The standard is nowhere near as high.
"It's also important for the morale of the lads on the team and it's very important for the development of the team, especially for the younger fellas coming up. Of course we could go up and end up going straight back down but we want a shot at it anyway. For the development of Wexford hurling, that's where we need to be."
Wexford's last national success was in 1996 when they succeeded Clare as All-Ireland champions. Last year, they lost the Division 2 league final to Offaly by a goal and have been spurred on this time by their wish to avoid a third successive season in the second tier.
"I hope we learned lessons from last year," says Lyng. "We left an awful lot on the field against Offaly which was very disappointing because it was our biggest game of the year. Colm [Bonnar] and the management have learned an awful lot more too and they can infiltrate that knowledge across the board."
In the 2009 championship, Wexford didn't progress past the qualifying rounds and as a result were faced with the defection of some players from the panel. Last week, Bonnar blamed the lack of competitive hurling in Division 2 for the loss but Lyng feels that's not the only reason.
"If they don't want to hurl for their county, that's their prerogative. A lot of those fellas don't have the core things needed to make it so they are not going to go far. Realistically, they don't have what it takes to be committed to something for the year and that's probably what they are hiding behind."
Clare v Wexford,