Daly back as things get serious in Clare

 

Two things signal serious intent in Clare hurling. Firstly, there's the call to arms to revisit heartbreak hill in Crusheen, a pilgrimage designed to rid bodies of any winter excess; and, secondly, there's the time when Anthony Daly pulls on the saffron and blue jersey for inter-county combat.

The first happened some time ago, almost as soon as bronzed Clare men had touched down from their exotic holiday in Hawaii. And that particular heavy training has moved up a gear or two in the last couple of weeks, coincidentally since the Clare castle contingent returned to the fold.

The second occurs on Sunday when Daly - whose last duty in a competitive game for Clare was to lift the Liam McCarthy Cup on the steps of the Hogan Stand last September - lines out at cornerback for the All-Ireland champions in their Church and General National Hurling League encounter with Limerick at the Gaelic Grounds, unquestionably the top game in a deliciously appetising day's fare.

Not that Daly has been away from the game since September. Far from it, in fact. Until last month, he was part of Clare castle's odyssey in the club championship that successfully nurtured county and provincial glory, only for the magpies to fall, in a semi-final replay, to eventual All-Ireland champions Birr.

As recently as last Sunday, Daly was the on-the-spot analyst for Clare FM at the Harty Cup Final in Nenagh, casting an eye on the next generation of the county's hurlers, talking more hurling.

There was no way Daly was going to miss this clash of champions, pitting the All-Ireland kingpins against the league holders. But he knows, as does everyone else who lines out on Sunday, that the season is only getting under way again. What happens in three days will have little relevance come the championship.

"This is a big game for the supporters and I expect a huge crowd," admits Daly, "but it's not the be all and end all. It is important and we'll be most anxious to win, but it counts for nothing come June 21st (the date Clare meet either Limerick or Cork in the Munster semi-final)."

Daly has been recalled to the finest defence in the country for Sunday's game, albeit in the less familiar corner-back role, with Frank Lohan keeping his captain out of the wing-back berth. And Liam Doyle, who just returned from his honeymoon on St Patrick's Day, has been drafted straight back in at right-half back.

It means two changes (the returns of Daly and Doyle) from the side that comfortably beat Antrim in the first series of matches last Sunday week.

Reality, however, suggests that the hurling - and teams - on view next Sunday will contrast should they meet again in the summer.

"For starters, you can be sure that Ciaran Carey won't be sitting on the substitutes bench for the championship," opines Daly. He continues: "The approach to this game is different from the sort of preparations we'd undertake coming up to a championship game.

We're in the middle of heavy physical work at the moment and we're due for more heavy work (tonight), and there is simply no way we'd be doing that a couple of days before a championship match."

Clare's win in their first league match, against Antrim, was almost too comfortable, which means that places, especially in attack, are all to play for in the countdown to the championship.

Sunday's clash should provide the team management with more answers, although everyone involved knows the really serious questions are even further ahead.