Sport Hurling

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Billy Keane: Clare will battle like it's Clontarf revisited but don't expect Rebels to accept Banner rule

Billy Keane

Billy Keane

The county nicknames suggest battle and do or die. The Banner and the Rebels paint images of rattling games played at high intensity by fiercely committed stick-men.

Clare have been carrying banners since the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. The Clare men gave the Vikings a good thrashing that day. The Rebels get their name from the fierce struggle in Cork to rid Ireland of the scourge of the Black and Tans and British rule.

It might be going a bit too far to suggest that without the intervention of Clare and Cork, the Union Jack would be flying over Croke Park tomorrow or our national dish would be roll mop, a type of Nordic pickled fish that's to be swallowed in one go like a slithery raw egg in sweet sherry. But the counties do have a deserved reputation for fighting the good fight.

The Cork independence movement is still strong. As my dad said about Kerry: "Cut one of us and we all bleed." Yes, Cork back each other up too, and they have an inspirational sporting database. Their latest hero is Robert Heffernan, who walks faster than most of us can run. I saluted him one day, near The Lough in Cork city.

"Good man Rob," I called out as he sped by, his winged feet spending as little time on the ground as the fly at a hob-nail boot sale. "Thanks Bob," was his cheery reply. All I can say, Rob, is Bob must be a fine-looking man.

Rob wasn't fazed at all by his Russian opponents in the walk to gold. Why? Because he is from Cork.

His team has rallied from the big defeat to Limerick in the Munster final. The win over Kilkenny has given Cork increased confidence. Can Jimmy Barry-Murphy lift his team yet again?

He has done a remarkable job. The greyhound man got it just right against the Cats and the Dubs. I suppose training greyhounds and hurlers is much of a muchness. Just get them fully fit for the big day. I used to own dogs but gave them up when our greyhound was scared of the mechanical hare.

It's all in the mind for horse or hound or man. Jimmy Barry decided brains, speed and skill were the necessary components for success in the biggest hurling field in the country but foremost, he seems to have instilled belief in his team. Taught his young players what is to be Cork and what it is to be a Cork hurler. He too has tapped in to the annals of the past.

The Clare Ceili bands are practising all week. Marches. Which suggests a certain sense of optimism. For marches are the musical currency of victory parades. The flags and buntings are everywhere. The county is consumed by the match. The corner of Clare close to Limerick, that covers the parishes of Cratloe and Clonlara, provides a good few of the team.

Such is the story of the GAA. A small place can be made into a big place by the emergence of a generation of star players. Throughout the history of the game we have seen this phenomenon. The chrysalis is waiting for the call in every townland. And then maybe once in a generation a small village lives forever in the annals of the GAA.

Davy Fitz has had the impossible task of protecting his players from the hype. Clare is a mass of saffron and gold. Everywhere you go it's hurling talk. I don't know the Clare lads personally but my guess is they do not need to be stoked up. Clare have that fire in them from the cradle. For years they were in the hurling wilderness but every summer they came back for more. That's the thing about the Banner; they come back for more.

I love the lines from 'Clare's Dragoons': "When on Ramillie's bloody field, The baffled French were forced to yield, The victor Saxon backward reeled, Before the charge of Clare's Dragoons."

The old Clare played like that. Charged and bested their opponents by the sheer will of their purpose. Bravery and togetherness were their twin sentinels. But now on the plains of Croker far more is needed. Too much passion wears you out. Davy Fitz must not put too much turf on the fire.

These young lads seem cool enough and if they're on a going day, long-range points might win it for them. None better than young Podge Collins. I often had a good day out with his uncle Jerry.

Cork beat Clare already this year in the championship. Beat them badly in the end. But the best team in June may not necessarily be the best team on the second Sunday in September.

I'm fairly certain Clare have improved. Limerick unsettled Cork, who couldn't cope with their power game. Then Clare beat Limerick. But Cork beat Clare. It would be easier to figure out the fixing of the economy.

Four miles across the big river Clare was sleepy and slow like a cat on a sunny sill. Lovely and verdant Clare was, as the rising saffron sun melted into the blue ripples of the Shannon.

Surely it's a sign. Saffron and blue. The Clare colours. The Banner to become All-Ireland champions in 2013? A year short of the thousand since Clontarf.

Maybe. But you could never trust the Rebels to accept Clare rule.

Irish Independent

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