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Banner marching back towards promised land

TO paraphrase Oscar Wilde: for the Banner to lose two Division 2 finals in a row could be regarded as misfortune; to lose a third would be more than carelessness.

They may be calling their division '1B' these days after the latest revamp of elite hurling's convoluted structures, but that's the stark reality facing Clare in the Gaelic Grounds today.

In 2010 they lost to Wexford, and last year it was today's opponents Limerick who had the temerity to beat them in Ennis.

The feeling that it's high time that Clare got out of the foothills and back up to the top flight was mitigated somewhat by the competitiveness of the second tier this year, but this is undoubtedly a pivotal moment for them, and new boss Davy Fitzgerald.

Not only would victory confer some badly needed confidence and status on many of the crew who won an U-21 All-Ireland in 2009, but it would also earn a crack at Kilkenny in the league semi-finals.

Some fear that could be a deeply poisoned chalice considering the damage the Cats wreaked on Galway's confidence recently.

But there's also an argument that facing the All-Ireland champions in a big league double-header at Semple Stadium would go a long way towards replicating the sort of intensity and atmosphere that Clare can expect when they rock up there to face Waterford on June 17.

That Fitzgerald managed the Decies to a succession of All-Ireland semi-finals will add huge spice to that big Munster clash, but that's for another day. First comes another eagerly anticipated rematch with the neighbours who finally got their act together under Donal O'Grady last year.

Limerick also have a young side under new management (John Allen) and when they met in the Waterford Crystal, Clare narrowly came out on top after a titanic two-game battle.

Unbeaten

In the first round of the league, Clare won 2-24 to 1-13, a 14-point win that kick-started an unbeaten run.

They were already home and hosed before the final round against Offaly last week and fielded an experimental team. But the manner in which they battled and held on delighted Clare fans because the criticism during Ger O'Loughlin's management was their tendency to fade out.

The county was brimming with optimism after the U-21 win in '09, but it still hasn't translated to the senior ranks. Injuries have played some part. Darach Honan is out after surgery on both of his hips and 2010-11 captain Pat Vaughan is also out with a hip problem. Brian O'Connell went to Australia last year, but returned to training last Tuesday night, albeit with the championship his target.

Fitzgerald, as he did with Waterford, has them playing a new possession game but they've also showed the ability to mix that, with John Conlon a fine target man.

Of the class of '09 Cian Dillon has also established himself at full-back and Conor McGrath's been outstanding up front, but older players like Brendan Bugler have also found some rich form.

They are without Fergal Lynch today and Caimin Morey has a hand injury, but Enda Barrett has been providing options at half-forward as well as half-back.

Limerick copperfastened their place with an impressive 3-22 tally against Antrim, Shane Dowling (19) getting two goals from 20m frees, but Kevin Downes is not fit to start, Declan Hannon is out injured and they are still without Seamus Hickey, whose return from America is imminent.

Those three were all key figures when Limerick won this tie last year and they are still sore that didn't bring the promotion expected so they have plenty of motivation too but Clare, surely, have even more right now.

Irish Independent