Wednesday 21 August 2019

John Mullane: 'Forgotten Banner set to make a serious summer statement'

'I was involved with the Waterford U-21s four years ago and I saw up close what O'Donnell (p) was all about when he effectively nullified Tadhg de Búrca and I couldn't get over how he was able to do it.' Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
'I was involved with the Waterford U-21s four years ago and I saw up close what O'Donnell (p) was all about when he effectively nullified Tadhg de Búrca and I couldn't get over how he was able to do it.' Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

John Mullane

They probably aren't complaining as they fly under the radar, but most people seem to have forgotten about the massive say that Clare will have in the destination of this year's Munster and All-Ireland titles.

Last summer was a remarkable one for Clare - they could easily have ended up with all the championship silverware had they closed out the Munster decider with Cork and taken their chances in the All-Ireland semi-final replay against Galway, and it just shows how close they are to scaling the summit again and why you'd be foolish to write them off.

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Winning in Walsh Park two weeks ago bodes well for the Banner and there's no better fixture to reassure everyone that they are genuine contenders again than to turn over All-Ireland favourites Tipperary.

They are no longer the whipping boys of Munster - as Anthony Daly famously said after their 1997 final defeat of Tipp - and the old enemy coming to the lion's den in Ennis really whets the appetite. Victory for either county provides serious momentum for the rest of the summer with Clare's qualification almost assured with a win.

The Tipp-Clare rivalry had been dormant until last year, but that Thurles drama and the scenes of celebration when the Banner took down the Premier in sensational style helped to create a reconnection with the Clare supporters.

Beating Tipp on away soil was a monumental moment for this Clare side and if they can put them to the sword two years in a row, it would be the biggest marker laid down by any side so far this summer.

Beating Liam Sheedy's Tipp will be easier said than done, however, and I'm sure tomorrow's clash in Fortress Ennis was a date that loomed in Liam's mind since returning to the hot seat.

Living so close to the Clare border in Portroe - and having played through their hostile rivalry in the 1990s - nothing would be sweeter for Liam than picking up two points and booking their Munster final place in enemy territory.

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On the other side, many are predicting that this is Donal Moloney and Gerry O'Connor's third and final year in charge, and Clare followers will be expecting some silverware for their efforts.

Conor Cleary's return at No 6 strengthens their hand as he is really growing into the leader they need at centre-back, with David McInerney a rock on the edge of the square behind him.

I'm not fully convinced by their wing and corner men, however, and it's these areas that Tipp will try to exploit with the likes of John 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer and John McGrath hoping to go to town again.

What Clare might lack in speed at the back, they have in abundance up front. John Conlon and Shane O'Donnell also give that aerial threat inside, with O'Donnell looking re-energised after completing his studies in Harvard.

I was involved with the Waterford U-21s four years ago and I saw up close what O'Donnell was all about when he effectively nullified Tadhg de Búrca and I couldn't get over how he was able to do it.

He's able to sacrifice some of his game to do a brilliant spoiling job on a defender, while also linking play in the most unselfish way. What he brings to the table can often go under-appreciated.

The work he does off the ball is incredible and I'm not in any way surprised that he has made a mockery of inter-county training by only coming back from the States in March.

He is their go-to guy in attack and his potential battle with the in-form Cathal Barrett is a mouth-watering one, while James Barry's duel with Conlon will also be fascinating.

The tighter dimensions of Cusack Park may help Tipp's backs deal with a lively Banner forward line - how they hope to counteract Tony Kelly's genius will have a major bearing on the result.

As Waterford found out the hard way, you cannot operate zonally and hope to quieten him. You must deploy a man-marker and it will be interesting to see if Tipp risk robbing Peter to pay Paul by sending Barrett out to track him.

Clare have a lovely balance at midfield with Colm Galvin and Shane Golden. I was a Munster Railway Cup selector three years ago under 'Dalo' when Golden was drafted in. I knew very little about him, but Dalo reassured Tommy Dunne and myself that Golden was a serious club hurler who just hadn't got a slice of luck to break through with Clare.

He has been proven right. He is under-rated but highly effective.

A winner is hard to call and this is the first real judgment of where Tipp are at, as they won't have the freedom afforded to them by Cork and Waterford - the Banner will be in their faces from the off.

I wouldn't be a bit surprised if we have our first Munster draw, but if forced to pick a winner, I expect the Sheedy factor and the pain from last year to drive Tipp on to making another serious statement and prevailing with a few points to spare.

Meanwhile, the meeting of Limerick and Waterford in Walsh Park is a winner-takes-all affair with the victor enjoying the kiss of life for their summer hopes.

Everyone is writing off Waterford while banging the drum about an expected Limerick backlash, but there must be a positive reaction from Páraic Fanning's side to deliver a performance and give the home support something to shout about this season.

It's now or never and the Waterford players have to stand up and fight to regain their pride, which must be severely damaged after the massacre against Tipp.

All I'm hearing back home is 'this system doesn't suit the players' and 'we need to play another way'. You can have all the tactics and systems in the world, but if you can't win your own ball, command your area and fight for every ball like your life depends on it, then you're in trouble.

The team that out-works the other invariably will win. Limerick were out-fought two weeks ago but I'd say John Kiely will have them back doing what they do best - and that's maxing out on work-rate.

If Waterford don't match them physically, there will only be one winner. But if they can match them, then we could have a big shock on our hands.

I'd trust Limerick more, however, and they can prevail. My faith in Waterford has been knocked and it's over to the players to perform and regain the trust of the Waterford public.

Carlow have acquitted themselves well in Leinster in their two games so far but out of their four fixtures, Colm Bonnar has made no bones about the fact that they have earmarked the Dublin game at home as their most likely chance to throw up a surprise of seismic proportions.

I can't see it happening. Mattie Kenny is forewarned after their league meeting and I'd expect the Dubs to cover the seven-point handicap if they are intent on dethroning Galway in a fortnight's time.

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