Banner men primed to lead charge from the front
Davy Fitz's side can build on All-Ireland glory and quench Clare's 16-year Munster drought, writes Vincent Hogan
Seldom has a crown looked more fragile than that Limerick hurlers will wear into Semple Stadium on June 1 to begin their provincial title defence.
With a vengeful Tipperary awaiting them and both of last year's All-Ireland finalists also hell-bent on winning Munster, Limerick would have been well advised to winter with due unity and care. Yet, the county seems congenitally programmed for conflict and the loss of joint-manager Donal O'Grady in mid-April spoke of a recidivism that has to be utterly demoralising to Limerick's vast hurling following.
The sheer scale of that community provided one of the most enduring images of last summer as the Gaelic Grounds burst its banks in celebration of their first senior Munster crown in 17 years.
Ten months on, Limerick are considered fourth favourites out of five in the province, O'Grady's departure leaving TJ Ryan holding the fort for a group that came up short of stated ambitions in the league (promotion from Division 1B), a setback triggering the bizarre county board inference that management had apologised for the fact.
Given 10 days to clarify that this was actually fantasy, the board remained silent.
Knowing that this would clearly raise the possibility of O'Grady's departure, their silence lent colour to a suspicion that, perhaps, his management of the team had not been meeting with broad approval.
Rumours abounded of players growing frustrated with the prioritising of a short-passing game that conflicted with the relative freedom espoused by last year's manager John Allen. Yet that same short-passing facilitated Clare's defeat of Limerick in last year's All-Ireland semi-final and has been largely accepted as the smart way forward in a game increasingly dominated by touch and speed.
Clare are now, naturally, many people's fancy to win their first Munster title since '98, with Davy Fitzgerald having, if anything, strengthened the group that stormed so spectacularly to the Liam MacCarthy Cup last year.
It surprised many that they were so quickly up to speed in the league given the lateness of their team holiday and, if Fitzgerald will have been disappointed by the heavy concession of scores against Tipperary (2-24) in the semi-final, he'll probably have been less than heartbroken to be left focusing exclusively on the championship.
Clare flew to Portugal for five days of warm-weather training after that defeat and the most trying challenge for Davy in the coming weeks will be deciding just what tinkering needs to be done with an already formidable first 15.
Shane O'Donnell looked unplayable against Waterford on March 16 and it will be intriguing to see the shape of Clare's attacking set-up come June, given that O'Donnell and Darach Honan have not yet really been tried as an inside line partnership.
Jack Browne looks a decent find at corner-back, albeit it remains to be seen if he has done enough to force out last year's hero of the drawn All-Ireland final, Domhnall O'Donovan.
The general expectation is of a Munster semi-final reprise of that Clare-Cork rivalry on June 15 given Waterford's relegation in the league and a growing sense that Derek McGrath does not have the kind of autonomy granted most county managers these days.
The suspension of formal training for close to a month, ostensibly to facilitate club activity in Waterford, spoke of the philosophical gulf now causing tension in just about every county in Ireland.
Many will applaud the county board's decision to take a route diametrically opposed to that of, say, Donegal, where club football activity can be called to a plenary halt on the insistence of All-Ireland-winning boss Jim McGuinness.
Yet, for a first-year manager like McGrath, the loss of that month will surely feel like an unwelcome handicap.
Waterford have immense young talent emerging and were impressive in the opening rounds of the league, beating Galway and Dublin and slipping to an unlucky defeat against Tipperary. But that Ennis trouncing on March 16 seemed to pitch them into freefall. They shipped 5-18 that day, then 4-22 next time out against Kilkenny. By the time Dublin rolled back into Walsh Park for a relegation play-off, Waterford's confidence seemed on the floor.
Another four goals were leaked that day, bringing the tally to a wounding 13 in three games. So Cork will be favourites when they meet in Semple Stadium on May 25, their top division status in the league duly restored and player pool boosted by the addition of dual talents Aidan Walsh, Damien Cahalane and Eoin Cadogan.
It seems surprising that there is so little support for Cork in the betting markets, given how close they came to ultimate success last year.
They are broadly placed behind Clare and Tipp in the Munster betting, yet Walsh, potentially, adds massively to the ball-winning ability of Pa Cronin and Seamus Harnedy in a highly skilful forward line.
Factor in too Anthony Nash's prowess from close-in dead balls as well as a rehabilitated Paudie O'Sullivan and Cork will carry a serious threat, no matter the opposition.
Tipp, of course, failed in their bid for a Munster three-in-a-row last year and were out of the championship after two defeats in two games.
Eamon O'Shea has been struggling with their defensive set-up since, his side leaking 12 goals during the course of successive league defeats against Kilkenny, Clare and Galway.
They bled another four in the quarter-final against Cork, but Tipp's achievement in getting to the league final despite those concessions spoke volumes for the attacking threat they carry, particularly with Seamus Callanan in spectacular form.
They will, undoubtedly, feel they 'owe' Limerick a beating on June 1 after last year's defeat at the Gaelic Grounds and TJ Ryan certainly faces an ominous challenge in getting his players to pitch up at Semple Stadium in the requisite frame of mind.
That said, given the undoubted scoring potential of men like Declan Hannon, Shane Dowling, Kevin Downes and Graeme Mulcahy, Tipp would be foolish to allow complacency infect their thinking.
Yet question marks remain about Limerick's defence and, more pertinently, the impact of O'Grady's exit on the group as a whole just six weeks before the championship.
The hunch here is that we will, thus, see a Tipp-Clare Munster final on July 13 with a hesitant vote just about falling the way of the All-Ireland champions.
Irish Independent Supplement