At the start of December, Ger Loughnane took to the stage at the West County Hotel in Ennis and delivered the keynote speech to the county's Munster and All-Ireland under 21 winning side.
oughnane warned the players, who formed the country's outstanding hurling team at underage level over the past five years - with the last three All-Ireland under 21 titles to their name - that while they had come from nowhere to being the envy of the land, they could just as easily lose it all.
"We are dominant because now when people ask who have we to beat to be successful at under 21 level, they immediately say Clare," he said. "If we can get to that situation at senior level, wouldn't it be brilliant?"
The principal message Loughnane imparted, however, was that these Clare players are already at a crossroads in their careers.
"What path do you choose?" Loughnane asked, his stern voice piercing the air. "As you go along that road you will have plenty people clapping you on the back and saying well done, enjoy life and have a few drinks. You are the most talented players we have ever had, and you can now bring Clare hurling to a new level, but only you can decide that."
Before he stepped off the stage, he left the young players with another inviting perspective. He referenced Kilkenny, the kings of the game, and highlighted the astounding amount of talent that they have lost. "The big ogre is beginning to lose his sense of danger."
Again, the inference was clear. Never has there been a better opportunity for a county to burst through and take the hurling world by storm. Clare are better poised than anyone. JJ Delaney's retirement, in particular, leaves a significant hole in the Kilkenny defence but quite apart from losing a combined 38 All-Ireland medals, Kilkenny have more importantly lost leaders and go-to men amid the quickest spate of high-profile hurling retirements the game has ever known.
Look at the 15 players below. It is surreal to think that we won't see any of them in action in the new year and it's not necessarily a good thing for the game either. Many of these departed are icons of the game. Some had served their time. Others, though, had more to give.
The five-time All-Ireland winner retired just when a goalkeeper should be coming into his prime. When he looks back at his lot, Herity will celebrate a golden haul of medals but he had to sit long and tight for his chance and when he eventually did slot in he never enjoyed the longevity goalkeepers crave. He spent his first three years on the panel as third-, then second-choice goalkeeper, before finally making a breakthrough in 2011 once James McGarry and PJ Ryan left. Herity took full advantage, winning consecutive All-Irelands in 2011 and 2012 before Eoin Murphy displaced him. He slotted back in when Murphy was injured this year, but couldn't retain his place for the All-Ireland final. On a rotten day for hurling, his performance in the Limerick game was his last act for the county. He would surely have liked a longer spell in possession of the number one shirt.
Hiney announced his retirement just a fortnight after Herity, but he had a lot more road travelled, having been in the mix with the Dubs since 2001. His career essentially can be split in two. Between 2001 and 2008, the team was mired in hurling's quicksand before Anthony Daly arrived. This signalled a revival which saw Dublin claim historic wins in the 2011 National League and the 2013 Leinster championship, the highlight of Hiney's career.
Retirement, although lamented by his team-mates, was the right call. Hiney overcame a succession of serious injuries during his career. At just 22, he was told he might never play hurling again after undergoing eye surgery. He missed Dublin's league final win over Kilkenny in 2011, having suffered a cruciate ligament injury. He made a full recovery and was a central figure when Dublin finally made their modern championship breakthrough. Throughout his 13 years at the top, though, he also had to manage diabetes. He moves on now, safe in the knowledge that his heart and bravery could never be questioned.
Seamus Callanan and Shane Dowling gave JJ a bit of trouble this season but it was widely thought he would be more than up to scratch for 2015 had he stayed on. The fact that there was a 10th medal up for grabs was also a carrot which ultimately didn't entice enough. His retirement carries vastly more significance for Kilkenny than any other because he was still a key first-team regular who had massive influence. He was nigh on unbeatable in the air, his hook on Callanan in the All-Ireland final, akin to Conor Gormley's iconic block on Stevie McDonnell in the 2003 All-Ireland football final, saved Kilkenny. Delaney could have gone on for another year, but he made a vow this time last year in Australia to come back better, fitter and stronger. He did just that. He still bows out too early.
The retirements of Seamus Prendergast and Shane Walsh were expected, but few saw Liam Lawlor's omission from the 2015 panel coming. However, the elevation of six members of the 2013 All-Ireland minor winning squad clearly suggests Waterford hurling is moving into a period of transition and the focus is on developing their underage talent.
Fair enough. When you have Shane Bennett, DJ Foran, Mark O'Brien, Tom Devine, Michael Kearney and Cormac Curran to bring in, why not? Austin Gleeson, Stephen Bennett and Patrick Curran have already paved the way for those minors to come into the senior set-up. Still, it means experience is lacking and the Waterford team of 2007 and 2008 has effectively been consigned to the annals. It reflects a seismic shift in modern hurling. Not long ago managers leaned towards experience - now it's towards youth. And careers end at 30.
One of the fall guys in all of this is Liam Lawlor, an intelligent, composed and classy full-back who went about his business in understated fashion, taking on the best hurlers in the game and the most physically imposing too, and always holding his own. Lawlor is disappointed to have lost out. Specialist full-backs are rare enough. Lawlor had more to give. He might now give his time to the county football side.
Tommy Walsh bowed out with garlands being thrown at him from every direction. Let's be frank, though, he must have been devastated not to have received more game time last season, even at half-forward or midfield. After all, he won All Stars in five positions. Maybe his speed waned a little, and maybe that dash he exuded was blunted somewhat, but what other team could leave him on the sideline?
Yet, time catches everyone. His love for hurling is huge - he played for Bank of Ireland against the Army in a recent challenge match and now he will try to win an intermediate county championship with Tullaroan. He leaves the scene with nine All-Ireland medals and nine All Stars. He was the most down-to-earth hurler and the sight of him milling across the half-back line, hurley resting on his shoulder, ready for the next tussle, will live forever.
Hogan, the 6' 4" O'Loughlin Gaels colossus, joined the Kilkenny panel in 2004 and left it with seven senior All-Irelands; eight Leinster championships; six NHL titles; four Walsh Cups and two All Stars. He had seen league and championship time diminish last season but the void he leaves will be massive. Ger Loughnane once stated that he would have Hogan in any side, stating that while he was not naturally skilful he fronted up in big games and always held the centre.
Compared to the giants just mentioned, Hanniffy played out much of his career in the hurling shadowlands and deserves even more respect for doing so, like his team-mate Kevin Brady who also quit after 37 championship appearances.
Hanniffy oozed quality. Work commitments and wear and tear had him very close to walking away last year until, with ongoing knee problems lingering, he finally left. Hailing from a hurling family - his brothers Darren and Gary are both All-Ireland winners - Hanniffy featured in just one Leinster final, in 2004. The results were torturous at times but he provided versatility and stability to a succession of managers. He played in every line for Offaly and clocked up 114 appearances, including 45 championship games. He started out against Galway in the 2001 league at right corner-forward and ended his career operating at centre-back. Very few have the ability to do that. It's a travesty that he walks with just two Division 2 league titles to his name at senior level.
In an ideal world Molumphy would still be part of the Waterford team's preparations, but aged just 30 the highly-committed army man has walked away. After losing his place, his introduction against Wexford was energetic but should also have yielded a few scores and sadly it was his last act in the county shirt. There was definitely more in the tank but at least he witnessed some good times. Having made his debut in 2006, Molumphy was an All Star in 2007 and a beaten All-Ireland finalist in 2008. He also won two Munsters and a league title.
Nagle was another let loose at the end of this season. Again, it's part of the crux that faced Derek McGrath - continue with the fusion of experienced players and young guys or go with the kids? McGrath ultimately chose the model adapted by Limerick, Clare and Wexford, who all went with young teams, and that spelt the end for Nagle who joined the team during the 2007 National League and became a regular member of the starting 15. He leaves with one Munster and one league medal.
Half-forward John O'Brien owes the county nothing after 14 years of service. The Toomevara club man won two All-Ireland titles (2001 and 2010), five Munster medals and one league. It was a decent haul, even if it could have been greater. He returned to the squad in April and soon regained the required rhythm, and was in splendid form approaching the All-Ireland final. O'Brien was sublime in the air, had excellent striking ability and was a menace to any opposition.
Prendergast called time on his career which spanned 14 years, four Munster titles and a National League in 2007. He was a physically imposing player who could score on the run off either side. A target man and a hard worker, he made his senior debut in 2001 and lined out at centre-forward in the 2008 All-Ireland final defeat to Kilkenny. The 34-year-old's final game was the qualifier loss to Wexford in July when he came on as a substitute.
The Mullinahone clubman lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup in 2010 and was also part of the side that triumphed in 2001. Being an impact player simply does not suit someone of his stature, drive, ability and wizardry and so he walked away with five Munster and two Leagues to add to the All-Irelands in a career that began in 2000. Perhaps his main achievement was almost carrying the team on his own during their difficult patch in the mid-noughties. Such were his levels of performance that he won six All Stars and was twice Young Hurler of the Year. Kelly is Tipperary's all-time leading scorer with 21-368 in 63 games. It was fitting to see him walk on his own terms.
Obviously there is no retirement here - and the hope is that one day he will be back in a Clare hurling jersey - but for 2015 Collins will be on the Clare football team after he was given an ultimatum to choose. Collins handled a dual role this season but while the footballers earned promotion from Division 4, the Clare hurlers failed to rediscover their form of the previous year.
"It wasn't an easy decision," he said. "I was in work, I was in a bad mood and getting grumpy with people I shouldn't have been getting grumpy with. I always said from a young age, from under 14s - I never knew I'd be playing with Clare senior - but I said if anybody made me choose between one or the other, I would go to the other because I just love them both. I don't know what people think of that but that is kind of what it came down to." Let's hope he will get the chance to go back again.
Walsh, the sublimely talented footballer and hurler, was with the senior hurling panel for 11 seasons. "It was time to make my mind up as I was carrying a few injuries," said the Fourmilewater/The Nire clubman, who won a league in 2007 and Munster titles in 2007 and 2010. After a mixed season, Walsh's retirement is part of the changing of the guard. They were relegated from Division 1A but wins over Galway and Dublin represented a reasonable campaign. They drew with Cork in the Munster championship quarter-final but lost in the replay, ahead of a qualifier win over Laois and their eventual exit to Wexford. Like Lawlor, Walsh could be coaxed back to play football for the county.
Few leave the scene with the haul that this 32-year-old corner-forward has. His game time was rapidly diminishing even if he would make most other teams, for his work rate alone. His hurley grip was fascinating and his striking style unique. He leaves with eight All-Ireland medals. The personal highlight was 2006 when he won the man-of-the-match award in the All-Ireland final having scored 1-3 from play.
Sunday Indo Sport