ALLIANZ NHL DIVISION 2 FINAL
CLARE v WEXFORD (Thurles, Tomorrow 5.0, live TG4)
SO you thought that the definition of hurling hell was to spend a year trapped in Division Two as a fallen giant? Well, there is a fate worse than this appalling vista, and it's called spending two years in Division Two.
Wexford have just served their penance, with no guarantee of an escape from purgatory either. Lose in Thurles tomorrow evening, and they will be staring at Year Three among the Carlows and Westmeaths of this world.
Not that Wexford can get too uppity, given the painful memory of Dr Cullen Park in March when they actually lost to Carlow at senior level for the first time in living memory.
That three-point reversal is symptomatic of the inconsistency that has blighted Wexford hurling in recent years although, to their credit, they won their next three games to secure a place in the final.
They faced a similar moment of truth 12 months ago, only for Offaly to take the promotion spoils.
"I just can't even think what it would be like for the players to lose a final again," said manager Colm Bonnar this week, suggesting that life in Division Two is "killing hurling" in Wexford.
Now in one sense, Bonnar has a point that both Clare and Wexford should be in Division One -- why doesn't hurling employ the same 'two up, two down' system that applies in football? You can only imagine the plaintive wails, though, if two so-called traditional counties were duly demoted under such a system next year.
Leaving aside such philosophical arguments, you cannot be definitive about the outcome of tomorrow's must-win curtain-raiser.
When the sides met in Ennis seven weeks ago, Clare led by 10 points inside half-an-hour ... but then a Wexford rally before half-time laid the seeds of doubt, the visiting midfield of Harry Kehoe and Colm Farrell (who start tomorrow) took over and man-of-the-match Diarmuid Lyng converted a last-gasp free from inside his own half to seal a dramatic draw.
This wasn't the only occasion this Spring where Clare have failed to press home from a position of first-half dominance -- note how they wobbled for a while against Westmeath. Like Wexford, they have also struggled in Carlow (emerging with a one-point victory) and endured an equally fraught and narrow win away to struggling Antrim.
This inconsistency is understandable in the context of so many All-Ireland U21 graduates learning the senior ropes at the same time. Still, they finished with 13 out of 14 points and on the proviso that Darach Honan is fighting fit (he scored 1-6 from play when the sides last met), the Banner men get our tentative vote to inflict more misery on the Model men.
ODDS: Clare 8/15, Draw 10/1, Wexford 7/4