Cats will test how far Clare have to go
The complexion of this hurling league can change in a heartbeat. With half an hour gone in their match last weekend against Cork, Clare looked down and out and seemingly on the road to a relegation play-off.
Cork were leading by five points and cruising, while Clare hadn't scored from play. The Rebels were still ahead by five points 10 minutes in to the second half when Clare suddenly exploded, hitting eight points without reply in as many minutes. They took a blow-torch to Cork, burned them to a crisp, and were on top of the league by the end of the weekend.
Cork were poor but Clare played with panache, confidence and a level of control that has been the hallmark of their recent underage teams. Two wins from three have given the Banner a huge lift but the tests are stacking up, with Kilkenny and Tipperary to come.
Those games will provide a far more accurate gauge of the progress Clare have made. And how much ground they still have to make up.
Clare's style of hurling and attacking play
With Kilkenny's physicality and intense tackling, Sunday will be a huge test of the short possession game that governs much of Clare's play. When the sides met in last year's league semi-final, Clare adopted the same template that Davy Fitzgerald used with Waterford in championship matches against Kilkenny, and in particular the 2010 All-Ireland semi-final against Tipperary.
Clare flooded space in the middle third and Conor McGrath was effectively playing as a one-man full-forward line. The Kilkenny full-back line was even taken aback by Clare's decision not to load that line with more bodies and pace and run at them.
When Clare stuck with a two-man full-forward line in last year's qualifier against Limerick, when they were chasing the game late on, it was like watching the tentative game Waterford often played under Fitzgerald.
Yet it is very clear how Fitzgerald wants his team to play. Along with a strong emphasis on defence, he prefers a two-man full-forward line, with a second corner-forward tucked in behind the opposition centre-back. He then wants the ball played down the channels for the two inside-forwards to run on to, where they can either take on their man or ship it back outside to the support runners.
If the ball doesn't go straight into the channels, a deep-lying Tony Kelly is the preferred outlet for deliveries from defence or midfield. Kelly has the pace and class to get into scoring range and has hit 1-10 from play in three games to date.
A couple of the players Clare use in their half-forward line are clearly there just to break puck-outs, win ball and then instantly offload it to the runners coming left or right.
Clare sometimes line up with their half-forward playing extremely deep, with their inside-forwards in a straight line down the middle of their attack.
That is a tactic often used by football teams, especially Dublin and Donegal, where each inside-forward knows when and where to move once the ball is sprayed either side of that middle line.
The Clare U-21s gunned down Kilkenny by 1-10 to 0-4 in the second half of last year's All-Ireland final by playing with four, often just three forwards.
Most of Clare's young players are comfortable with adapting to that style but it is harder to implement at senior level, given the increased pace and physicality of defenders.
Moreover, some of Clare's younger, classy players perform best when they put instinct ahead of tactics.
Clare's style of play, with a lot of shooting from distance, does not always lend itself towards scoring goals. In the eight league and championship games they have played since last year's Division 1B final, they have scored just five goals. Two of those came from placed balls, while Clare have never hit more than one goal in a match.
In their defence, the Banner have been playing with a very inexperienced full-forward line. Three of the players that started there last summer were under 21. Two of the three that have started the three games this spring are still under 21, one of whom – Shane O'Donnell – was a minor last year.
Two of the squad's proven goalscorers – McGrath and Darach Honan – have also been out injured. McGrath is recovering from a hip operation while Honan made two cameo appearances totalling 12 minutes in Clare's last two games after two injury-plagued seasons.
Standing at 6'7" and with searing pace, Honan showed in the 2009 All-Ireland U-21 semi-final at 19 that he had the potential to be the most explosive goalscorer in hurling after Joe Canning.
When Honan made his first start last season, in the qualifier against Dublin, he wasn't fit and was never able to get away from Peter Kelly. Yet his return from just eight plays was huge. As well as scoring 0-2, he was fouled for a converted 1-1. If Clare can get Honan and McGrath fit and motoring, Clare's goalscoring rate will improve.
of young players
Fourteen of the 19 players who featured against Cork have All-Ireland U-21 medals. Seven of those 14 came off last year's successful U-21 team, while four of those seven, along with O'Donnell, are underage again this year. One of those, David McInerney, looks set to solve the troublesome full-back spot.
Seadna Morey and Tony Kelly, both superb players, are getting better, but the 2009 All-Ireland U-21 crew are becoming more influential, especially Colin Ryan.
After exploding on to the scene in the 2009 Munster semi-final, Ryan's career had oscillated ever since. However, he has carried his outstanding club form from last season into this spring and has been Clare's best player to date.
Clare have trained harder than any other hurling county over the last few months. Prior to the league, they trained hard on a Tuesday evening and were in the gym at 6.0 the following morning. Those 6.0 Wednesday sessions are still sporadically taking place.
Given their youth and lack of senior experience, allied to their hunger, Clare are coming from a different base than the top counties. They needed a head-start on fitness to survive in this league. Working so hard on physical fitness has aided the mental strength, and team-spirit, of Clare teams in the past.
Yet there are risks attached to going so hard so early in the season. With Clare needing to win three games to win Munster, freshness will play a key part. Will there be enough gas in the tank come July?
Another risk with going gung-ho for the league is that a team shows their hand too early. However, Clare have to build their team and style on the hoof to survive in such an unforgiving arena.
Wins against Galway and Cork showed they are heading in the right direction. They are learning all the time.
A Kilkenny team ravenous for two points on Sunday will tell Clare how far they have really come.