Moloney hails rise of new leaders
Suspended joint-manager confident Banner will fly high in Thurles with likes of Conlon leading the way
Slowly, but very definitely in the last two seasons, Clare's 2013 All-Ireland winning team has fragmented to the point where joint-manager Donal Moloney can categorically state that it is "no longer".
Five years on from their All-Ireland replay win over Cork, just eight of the 19 players on duty that crisp Saturday evening in September featured against Limerick in their final Munster round-robin match in Ennis.
Some have retired, others have been deemed surplus to requirements in the intervening years but a team that looked well-placed to dominate the market, in the middle of a trio of All-Ireland U-21 titles, have failed to make any significant mark on a championship summer until the last few weeks.
Moloney lists players who have departed - Colin and Conor Ryan, Brendan Bugler, Pat Donnellan and Darach Honan who have all retired, prematurely in most cases. Domhnall O'Donovan is name-checked too. Then there's Aaron Cunningham, Aron Shanagher and Oisin O'Brien who have either emigrated or are currently laid up with injury.
That's nearly two-thirds of the 2013 team, noted Moloney - who failed to have a proposed three-month suspension for an incident with a linesman during the Tipperary match overturned by the Central Hearings Committee and consequently he will not be on the sideline on Sunday (2.0).
Yet he has the confidence to acknowledge the county's "fortune" that they have "probably the strongest group of senior hurlers we've had in a long time".
And among that group, new leaders have emerged to replace the likes of Bugler and Donnellan. John Conlon is chief among them, according to Moloney.
It was Conlon who was the rallying voice in the dressing-room in Cork when they lost their opening-round game to their hosts, just as he was when they met in west Clare to start out their season earlier this year.
Cultivating new leaders has been a priority of management.
"John has been tremendous for us. He is 29 now so he's been really instrumental in driving things for us," said Moloney. "We have greatly encouraged them to lead and to set the tone and the agenda. They are all very capable guys off the field so we are really trying to tap into that as well.
"John's voice has been clear all year. He's been very prominent in any meetings or discussions we've had. He has amassed a lot of experience. He's a guy that a lot of people look up to because it's not just words, it's action. He's really trying to get the best out of himself in every match, every training session.
"I don't want to lay it all at John's door because he will get held up some day, some team will close him down, that's going to happen because it happens with every major player. So other guys need to step into the breach when that happens."
Clare have stood still since 2013, according to Moloney, while the competition "moved on".
"You're always trying to improve," he said. "I remember under Davy's (Fitzgerald) time in 2013, the team was lauded for the incredible decisions they made during that run.
"But the context changes, the environment changes continuously. In the intervening years, probably the competition moved on - and we didn't. We needed to close that gap. That's our focus. I don't think we're anywhere near where we need to be yet."
Added fitness has been a big focus point, well beyond where Fitzgerald had in 2013, according to Moloney, who sees a tactical shift too.
In 2013 Clare had a specific style based on huge fitness, great athleticism, brilliant teamwork, a lot of running with the ball, breaking the tackle, beating the man - that's still very much part of the game but the game has switched back to more long ball, or a variety of ball, short and long," he pointed out.
"Also, the levels of fitness in the last few years have gone way up. Back in 2013 teams thought they were exceptionally fit but we've seen how that has gone up and up. You know that by the GPS stats. Not just the distance but the high-speed running. You expect every guy in the middle third to be able to run 100 metres up and down for nearly 70 minutes continuously. That's the reality of every top team now. Same in football."
Moloney has refused to blame the failure to take opportunities against Cork and Tipperary last year for their championship exits, suggesting they may not have been "ready" to beat either.
"I don't think it was why we didn't win last year. We weren't probably ready to beat Cork or to beat Tipp last year," he suggested.
"Some of the chances, you will always point to those, but Cork missed chances as well. Tipp missed goal-scoring chances in the quarter-final. It wasn't the reason we came up second in both of those games."
Moloney feels the biggest lesson, as a management team, that they learned was how different U-21 hurling was to senior.
"They're the same sport but that's about it. It's extremely different; there are so many different nuances to senior hurling. You need to experience it and have some failures, fall flat on your face from time to time. I think we've done all of the above.
"Then we had the willingness to try and learn from those disappointments last year. The whole coaching team has worked very, very hard, as indeed have the players, in terms of reflecting and analysing on what we needed to do to improve.
"It was a major, major focus for us. We recognised that we have players of great capability but we weren't putting it all together in terms of the type of performance that was necessary. We had to recognise that and get after it."