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Wounded Cats can lay down early marker with Clare scalp

THE more things change, the more they stay the same. Clare may start the year as All-Ireland champions, but that hasn't stopped plenty of pre-league commentary that a certain wounded Cat remains the team to beat.

Some of this talk, it must be noted, has been coming from the Banner's very own PR machine. If we are to believe their charismatic manager, the celebratory tour of duty has taken its inevitable toll and Clare are miles behind where their fitness levels should be for this time of year.

Or more precisely, according to Davy Fitzgerald: "We are nine weeks behind in our training ... our fitness isn't up to scratch. In last week's Waterford Crystal Cup final, we were not making as many tackles as we should be, which shows that our enthusiasm isn't what it should be ... if we survive in the league, it will be massive."

They could scarcely have sought a more searching examination of their stamina or early-season lust for battle: a Kilkenny team simmering with intent, determined to prove that last summer's 'death by a thousand cuts' was an aberration, not proof of a great, but ageing team in inevitable decline.

The early evidence of 2014 has been pretty positive from a Kilkenny viewpoint, albeit what happens in the Walsh Cup scarcely qualifies as compelling. They steamrolled Galway in the second half of their semi-final in Freshford, where the sight of Henry Shefflin donning Black-and-Amber in January was every bit as encouraging as the 13 points he amassed.

Then Shefflin disappeared from view for the Walsh Cup decider against Dublin – and the fallen kings still prevailed by four points, with Eoin Larkin and Colin Fennelly revealing a sharpness of movement and economy of execution that you don't always see at this time of year.

True, the surface in Croke Park that night was far more forward-friendly than what is likely in Cusack Park, where playability has been the subject of much debate during the recent storm-lashed days.

Whatever about playing conditions, the conditioning of the home players will also come under scrutiny after they were blown away by Tipperary in the second half of the Waterford Crystal Cup final last weekend.

Clare, with eight of their All-Ireland team, actually led narrowly at the break, but ended up losing by 4-22 to 3-11. Maybe this helps to explain this week's warning from last year's championship top-scorer, Colin Ryan: "If we under-prepare, we will get a rude awakening. They don't turn into a bad team overnight."

On this occasion, whatever about later in the year, we expect Cody & Co to prove it.

ODDS: Clare 13/10, Draw 9/1, Kilkenny 8/11

VERDICT: Kilkenny