New breed out to extend Clare's feel-good factor
If Kilkenny's performance in their All-Ireland semi-final victory over Galway is a benchmark for the way they will play today then Clare, like Tipperary in the senior game, will need to give the performance of a lifetime to stop the Cats.
Kilkenny are looking to extend their lead at the top of the honours table by winning the All-Ireland minor title for the 20th time.
Clare have only won it once -- 13 years ago as part of an historic double for the county. On that day, Sixmilebridge man John Reddan walked the steps of the Hogan Stand to lift the Irish Press Cup for the Banner County; Anthony Daly followed him three hours later to claim the Liam McCarthy.
That, though, was as good as it got as Clare slipped back down the pecking order until last year, when, after a decade in the wilderness, hope was restored in the county. The under 21 team stormed the championship, finishing with a one-point victory over Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final.
"The county needed last year and it picked everyone up, the seniors weren't going great, there was a lot of doom and gloom around the place," says current Clare minor, Paudge Collins. "Being there and seeing all the joy and excitement was amazing, it would be nice to do the same with the minors."
Collins is one of the new breed of hurlers emerging in Clare. Captain and full-back Paul Flanagan of Ballyea, defenders Seadna Morey and Enda Boyce are some of the stand-out players who have burst onto the scene this year.
And the full-forward line isn't bad either -- David O'Halloran, Niall Arthur and Daire Keane hit 1-12 between them in the Munster final. Collins, who is captain of the Clare minor football team, has been looking forward to the chance to play a final in Croke Park since seeing his brother, Sean, play the under 21 final there last year.
"It's good having a brother who is already playing for Clare, I have first-hand experience of what it's like and I know what is expected of me and what I need to do to win. It's prepared me for it and relaxes me knowing what is involved," he admits.
This Clare team haven't had an easy season, an eight-point loss to Waterford in the first round of the Munster championship sent them back to the drawing board. But they picked themselves up and went on to beat Kerry, Tipperary and Limerick to earn a second shot at Waterford in the Munster final.
"Losing the first time gave us the incentive to drive on and we wanted to meet them again," adds Collins. "We worked harder because we knew Waterford were the team to beat."
Luckily for the Cratloe clubman the hard work and determination paid off and Clare were crowned Munster champions, overcoming Waterford 1-16 to 1-11 to set up an All-Ireland semi-final encounter with Dublin. Despite being the better team, Clare were lucky in the end to escape from Croke Park with a one- point victory.
Meanwhile, Kilkenny were cruising through Leinster, easily beating Dublin (twice) and Offaly to claim the Leinster title. They saved their best performance of the season so far for the All-Ireland semi-final meeting with Galway, a 5-19 to 0-15 victory.
The conveyor belt of talent in Kilkenny is running right through today's minor team. Midfielder Ollie Walsh is a son of Kilkenny under 21 manager and former All-Ireland winning goalkeeper, Michael, and half-forwards John Power and Pádraig Walsh have brothers, Richie and Tommy, playing in the senior decider.
"I'm not really nervous because so much preparation has gone into today," says Collins. "We played Kilkenny three times in challenges during the year, so we have a fair idea what they are like. We know all their players and we've done our work. We know what they are like already because we've played them but if we were going on scorelines alone it would be a different scenario, we would be kind of worried."
Collins knows that having the experience of playing in Croke Park will stand to them. Even the crowd Kilkenny will bring to witness a potential five in a row doesn't faze him.
"I'd say the Tipperary crowd will shout for Clare because they won't want Kilkenny to have the momentum, it happened in the Munster final. Waterford were playing Cork and the Cork crowd shouted for us. But ultimately, you just ignore it all and play the game. It's after the match you realise where you are when you see the crowds and it gets a bit overwhelming."
Kilkenny: D Walsh; J Corcoran, W Phelan, B Kennedy; P O'Carroll, L Harney, O McGrath; K Kelly, O Walsh; J Power, P Walsh, C Buckley; M Brennan, G Aylward, T O'Hanrahan.
Clare: R Taaffe; H Vaughan, P Flanagan, S Morey; E Boyce, K Lynch, S O'Halloran; C Galvin, T Kelly; C Malone, P Collins, J Shanahan; D Keane, N Arthur, D O'Halloran.