Jamesie O'Connor: Clare have weapons to breach Deise defence
Waterford are a team on a journey but the Banner have extra class and belief
I don't think there were too many Clare supporters overly confident making their way into Cusack Park six weeks ago for the pivotal Division 1B promotion decider with Limerick. Earlier wins over Offaly, Wexford, Kerry and Laois had seen them take care of business, but their form had been patchy at best.
I saw Limerick blow Wexford away in the Gaelic Grounds on the opening night, and on TG4, watched Clare labour against the same opposition, albeit in Wexford Park a week later. The pace of the game seemed so pedestrian in comparison to the physicality and intensity of the Tipperary-Kilkenny match that preceded it. It was reasonable to wonder how Clare could or would cope with a Limerick side driven to finally escape the division, and the level of superior opposition operating in the top tier.
Much like Waterford last year, those questions were answered emphatically in the month of April. The Limerick match, though, may well turn out to be the single most important game Clare win all year.
It was always going to come down to that clash on the final day to determine who secured promotion, and there was real pressure to perform. To their credit, the Clare players responded, and with the help of John Conlon's controversial opening goal, duly delivered.
The prospect of another season mired in Division 1B wouldn't have sat well with an already divided Clare public. More pertinently, it would also have ratcheted up the pressure, especially on the management, and made the championship clash with Waterford on June 5 a bigger game than it already is.
Now, with promotion secured, the scalps of both Tipperary and Kilkenny under their belts, and from seemingly nowhere, a league final to look forward to, Clare's stock has risen higher than at any time in the last two years.
That today's opposition is Waterford adds an intriguing twist. It's a regret of mine, and I'm sure of Davy Fitzgerald's as well, that during our careers with Clare, a National League medal eluded us.
It may have had something to do with the fact that Ger Loughnane, our manager for much of it, won two of them in 1977 and '78, but came up short of the Munster and All-Ireland medals he craved. The league always seemed less important. Times have changed, though, and Kilkenny's attitude and approach to the league over the last decade has increased its currency with everyone else.
It's a prize worth winning, and on that basis it's inconceivable that either side will be going anything less than flat out to win this afternoon in terms of effort on the field. Admittedly, both Derek McGrath and Davy Fitz may have match-ups in mind they would like to hold on to, or tactical ploys they're keeping for June. But they don't want to overthink this. Form and injuries will mean a different slant to proceedings come championship, so hopefully we get the no-holds-barred contest today's stage merits, and I think we will.
McGrath deserves a lot of credit. A year on from when they came from nowhere to be one of the stories of the summer, Waterford have all the hallmarks of a team on a journey. They have got stronger, particularly some of the younger players, and there aren't many teams as fit or physically imposing as Waterford looked in the semi-final.
They are also a year on in terms of advancing the game-plan that made them so hard to break down and beat in 2015. Defensively, whether it's Tadhg de Burca or Darragh Fives in the sweeper role, Clare are unlikely to find the same space Kilkenny afforded them a fortnight ago.
Amassing 3-23 at the other end also belies the defensive label that is all too easily attached to the Deise. And that was without the injured Maurice Shanahan (above), or Pauric Mahony for that matter.
Shane Bennett looks to have kicked on, and with Patrick Curran on track to realise the enormous potential he showed at colleges and underage level, they also now have the type of clinical finisher in the inside line they haven't had since Paul Flynn and John Mullane were in their pomp. Curran will take watching this summer.
So while the challenge facing Clare is formidable, it is also one they are as well equipped as any team outside of Kilkenny to deal with. Clare play with an extra defender as security, so the forwards are used to having to contend with superior numbers in the opposition half. Few teams, however, practise it as extensively, or play it as well and with the same discipline as Waterford.
Clare have players in form, and the ability to strike from distance, but it will still be a challenge to break Waterford down and get the scores to win.
Clare have been far more direct with the ball this year. Conlon on the edge of the square has been a great outlet, and they have reaped big dividends from going long to him. An ankle injury keeps him out today, which curtails that option, but with Tony Kelly and Shane O'Donnell to come back, Clare have other weapons to compensate. Podge Collins' return has lifted things and with both Darach Honan and Conor McGrath also in good form, Clare have a genuine cutting edge inside.
At the other end, Donal Óg Cusack's influence is reflected in the fact that Clare have only conceded one goal from open play in seven matches. Cian Dillon has been outstanding in the sweeper role, and the opportunities that injuries have afforded to some of the younger players such as Oisín O'Brien and David Fitzgerald have been grasped. Legitimate questions still remain as to whether the defence will be good enough come summer, but for the moment, the results are encouraging.
There won't be a whole lot in it, but Clare are winning the type of matches this year that they couldn't in either of the last two seasons. The confidence that brings, along with the little bit of extra class Clare have up front, might be enough to have them ahead at the final whistle.
Sunday Indo Sport