Banner going places, insists O'Connell
IT was some way for Nicky O'Connell to announce his arrival.
June 7, 2010. Munster SHC semi-final and O'Connell is making his senior championship debut for Clare. In the 15th minute, O'Connell points off his left-hand side from long range. In the 20th minute, he strikes a free from the middle of the field and Clare are 0-6 to 0-3 clear.
Less than a minute passes and O'Connell bounces off two would-be Waterford tacklers and flashes over another score into the Killinan End.
He would end up on the losing side that day but O'Connell played without baggage, with freedom, fearless.
A graduate from Clare's All-Ireland U-21 winning side of 2009, O'Connell is still learning at midfield. Last Sunday saw him go head to head with former Hurler of the Year Michael Fennelly in the league clash with Kilkenny.
"He's nearly twice the size of me," O'Connell smiles.
Kilkenny won, but only just, and O'Connell is taking more positives than negatives from the Cusack Park tussle.
To match Kilkenny, he points out, you have to stand up to them in the physical stakes. And with Davy Fitzgerald at the helm, Clare were prepared, O'Connell reveals.
"He's brought the passion back into Clare hurling, we are more driven than we have been in a few years. He told us to stand up for ourselves and don't let them bully us. We thought that is what they might do because they are a massive team, very physical," he says.
A total of 12 second-half wides cost Clare victory – and might ultimately cost them a place in the semi-finals. But the signs are that Clare will be a force come championship time, even if Fitzgerald wants to play down expectations.
O'Connell, however, struggles to contain his excitement.
"Last Sunday was more a positive than a negative because we got so close to the All-Ireland champions and that shows we are good enough to compete with the big boys," he insists.
"It gives us massive belief. I know it is the league but we showed we were better than them at times, and gives us massive confidence that we can hurl against the best teams in the country. It shows we are going places."
Next Sunday's Division 1A shootout with Tipperary is another test for Clare.
Eamon O'Shea's men have blown hot and cold this year but they will be favourites on home soil at Semple Stadium. Down the road, the two sides could meet in a summer Munster final.
O'Connell says: "I rate Tipp so highly, they and Kilkenny have been by far the two best teams in the country for the last few years. It's a massive game for us, if we don't win we could be in the semi-final of relegation and if we do win, we're in the semi-final of the league.
"A lot of lads wouldn't have thought that before the start of the league, or especially after the first game, the loss to Waterford. It would be a massive, massive win if we could do it on Sunday."