Clare reliance on Kelly will be put to test by wounded Cats
Banner need new leaders to stand up in likely absence of talisman
Last November those in Cusack Park in Ennis for Ballyea's Munster club semi-final against a much-fancied Thurles Sarsfields had the pleasure of witnessing not just one of the truly great Tony Kelly interventions in a game but one of the most influential interventions by any hurler in recent times.
A week had passed since Ballyea landed their very first Clare SHC title and they could have been forgiven for the slumber they found themselves in for the first 50 minutes.
For Thurles, it looked like a routine afternoon as they amassed a comfortable nine-point lead with the finish line in sight.
But then Kelly cut loose and the results were quite spectacular. Between the 51st minute and the 71st minute, just after half-time in extra-time, he scored six points from play and a point from a free that he had earned himself.
Gary Brennan and Niall Deasy would go on to apply the coup de grace themselves but it was Kelly who, once again, lit the fire to take down one of the club championship's big guns.
It left Ballyea coach and former Clare All-Ireland winner in 1995 and 1997 Fergal Hegarty scrambling for superlatives and drawing 'Roy of the Rovers' comparisons.
"I think he's the best player in Clare I've ever seen, in my time, and is arguably one of the best hurlers of this generation, that's undoubted. But it's the character he has," enthused Hegarty. "When the need is greatest, he'll come up with the scores. And the scores he came up with, one was better than the next."
Two weeks later there was more of the same, this time Glen Rovers swept aside by the majesty of the gifted former Hurler of the Year in full flight.
Earlier this month his fingerprints were once again all over Ballyea's advance to the All-Ireland final, his third point from three giving them the assurance after Thomas' comeback.
Just when you think he can't go much higher, however, he does just that, linking up with Clare for their opening round league match in Cork on Saturday night and delivering a tour de force without which they would have been cut much further adrift in Páirc Uí Rinn than they were.
Right now there is scarcely a more important player to a county team than Kelly is to Clare.
For a county that reeled off three consecutive All-Ireland U-21 titles from 2012 to 2014 and, arguably, won an All-Ireland senior title ahead of time, that's not a position they could have expected to find themselves in.
Even TJ Reid's shoulders don't feel the same weight in Kilkenny. Derek McGrath could hold off Austin Gleeson on Sunday in Nowlan Park, while Seamus Callanan could coast in Croke Park, relying on frees only to build his eight-point tally.
Because they were in Division 1A last spring Clare were able to sufficiently disguise Kelly's absence with a knee problem.
But on Sunday, when Kilkenny go to Ennis for a second round fixture that the stakes have risen for after last weekend's sequence of results, Kelly probably won't be available.
Agreement to exclude the Ballyea contingent has, apparently, been reached and by any examination that leaves the home side in a perilous fix without their talisman.
Jack Browne will also be missing on that count as will two of the club's other stars during their run, half-back Gearóid O'Connell and prime attacker Niall Deasy. The exclusion of both from the 26-man squad in Cork was a surprise given the rich vein of form they are in.
For joint-managers Donal Moloney and Gerry O'Connor, Saturday night was a tough baptism. But they haven't been helped by a raft of absentees, some of which look like they could become permanent.
Colin Ryan is taking an extended break from the game but the expectation is that he won't be back for the summer. Darach Honan's career has never taken flight as was anticipated, and with hip trouble persisting, his training is restricted and that condition is not certain to improve.
The absence of Colm Galvin, new captain Pat O'Connor and Conor McGrath is particularly telling. Galvin had a big season in 2016 but is currently unavailable though he was one of the stars for Mary Immaculate in their Fitzgibbon Cup win yesterday.
O'Connor and McGrath are both recovering from shoulder surgery that will keep them out of the entire league campaign unless they reach another final.
With David McInerney travelling as he allows a recurring back complaint to recover, the leadership vacuum deepens.
In the probable absence of Kelly, Clare will have a vision of that reality.