Banner have stepped up pace from last year
Losing to Waterford in the league means Clare will not be complacent, writes Jamesie O'Connor
To say the build-up to today's first big hurling championship encounter of the season has been low-key in Clare is an understatement. There's hardly been a peep about it and by all accounts it's a similar story in Waterford.
That had me lamenting last week for the days when teams had to be named for championship matches on the Tuesday night. As well as being an obvious topic of conversation in subsequent days, to me it helped generate interest and create a sense of atmosphere and anticipation around the county in the build-up to the game.
The Offaly man I was conversing with wasn't long telling me of course that it was my own county that wrecked that practice in the late 1990s. Almost 20 years on, nothing has changed because like the dummy teams famously named by Ger Loughnane, there's no way I expect the Clare team named last week to be the one that takes the field this afternoon. For a start, neither Darach Honan nor Cian Dillon were included, but I expect both to start, which will make for plenty of other positional switches.
While Waterford are far more likely to play as selected, the fact they have 10 changes from the side that overturned Clare 12 months ago is hard to credit. Overcoming that turnover in personnel is a huge challenge and, for the bookies, obviously a significant factor in the prohibitively short odds they have Clare at.
John Mullane, Eoin Kelly and Shane Walsh accounted for half the Waterford scores last year. Stephen Molumphy's energy and work rate will be missed in the middle of the field, but it could well prove to be the injury to Stephen Daniels at the back which hurts most. Daniels is a top-class defender and when switched on to Conor McGrath last year, he put the shackles on Clare's biggest scoring threat. Both he and Shane Fives were excellent in the league encounter in Ennis, so it's an area of the field where Clare have the potential to really hurt Waterford.
With that in mind, Michael Ryan has brought Darragh Fives back from the middle of the field (where he had been hurling well) and there are no doubts about Noel Connors in the other corner. However, whether Liam Lawlor still has the legs to cope with the speed and direct style of young Shane O'Donnell is another story. Lawlor has never let Waterford down in the championship and has all the guile and cuteness the full-back position requires. But Clare will surely try to isolate him and there's no better place to expose a lack of pace than Thurles in summer conditions.
In the opening league game between the sides, Waterford were able to deny Clare that kind of space primarily because their midfielders played noticeably deeper. Shane O'Sullivan in particular sat right in front of his half-back line, which afforded Brick Walsh at centre-back a little bit more scope to sit in the pocket and provide a measure of protection to the full-backs.
However, with Tony Kelly operating at centre-forward, Brick will have to be alive to the threat he represents. Kelly will drift all over the field, and Waterford can't allow him too much leeway because he reads the game well and has the ability to score from distance. If he gets one from play, he could get six, something I'm sure the Waterford management are cognisant of.
Yet, in Brick, Kevin Moran, Shane O'Sullivan, Seamus Prendergast and Maurice Shanahan, Waterford have a lot of experience and, more importantly, ball-winning ability, especially in the air. No one would argue that the newcomers in attack possess the flair of Paul Flynn, Mullane or Kelly in their pomp, but they have talent, work hard and Clare would be foolish to underestimate their threat. If I were a Waterford player, especially one of the older guard, I'd be stung by how all the talk appears to be about Clare. The odds quoted give them no chance and it's as if Davy Fitz's side are the ones that have contested the last four Munster finals.
That's why losing at home to today's opponents in that opening league tie may very well have been a blessing in disguise for Clare. That and the memory of the two-point defeat a year ago should guard against any complacency in their ranks.
I think they're definitely a better side now than they were 12 months ago. There's the obvious benefit of a season of Division 1 hurling under the belts of the younger players. The pace and intensity of the six games played and the experience that provided to a young side was of immense value. A classic example was when regular full-back Cian Dillon's replacement, James McInerney, went down with injury before the second game. Clare were forced to throw in David McInerney, full-back on last year's under 21 team, into the position. Having seen him cope with the best the top-tier teams had to offer, there shouldn't be any doubts in the Clare management's minds about his ability to survive there this afternoon.
Those games also confirmed the view that the younger players coming through are not only more athletic and talented than the ones
who they replace, but they also appear to have what it takes to compete at this level.
With up to five of the starting 15 under 21 again this year, there's a lot of youth, pace and athleticism in the Clare team. Tony Kelly and Séadna Morey's talents have been well documented, but as the summer progresses, David McInerney, Colm Galvin, who was outstanding against Cork in the relegation play-off, and Shane O'Donnell could well outshine them.
Obviously the lack of goalscoring opportunities created during the league and the wayward shooting that nearly undid them against Cork, when they hit 24 wides, are issues that management needed to address. What separates the top sides, Kilkenny and Tipperary in particular, from the rest is how much more efficient and economical they are with the possession they have. Those are lessons the Clare players need to learn, and with the talent they have in their inside forward line, it would be criminal to see wild shooting from out the field at the expense of ball being redirected to Honan, O'Donnell and McGrath.
This game ended in a photo finish last year. That day Clare missed three scoreable frees, had 10 wides to their opponents' five, gave away one terrible goal, and conceded a second from a free that should have gone the other way.
Clare are now better. With the players they've lost, we can't say the same about Waterford. Clare to win.