Forward thinking to launch Kilkenny
National Hurling League Final preview: This afternoon's Allianz National Hurling League final is full of the usual sub-plots yet it is free from any championship distortions. Neither side begins its summer for at least another month so this afternoon will be about the end of one campaign rather than the beginning of another.
It will take a fairly radical result to adjust either team's prospects going into June but there is still plenty of interest for both the counties involved as well as the hurling public at large, hoping for a suitably cathartic conclusion to the tragedy that has been the competition this season.
For Kilkenny this is a third league final in four years and it bears comparison with the 2002 and 2003. On both occasions the county won and went on to add the championship, the league functioning each year as a strictly observed testing ground for the teams that emerged in the summer.
The momentum acquired in the spring was both maintained and an accurate reflection of the team's credentials. Last year the early signs that all was not well in Kilkenny, as the three-in-a-row All-Ireland came up on the horizon, came in the league when the team were unable even to contest the top-six group let alone defend their title.
Apparently valid theories that the team needed some down time in early 2004 proved incorrect, as Kilkenny stuttered through the rest of the year before running on empty into last September's final.
It's reasonable to assume, if only for the sake of precedent, that Kilkenny would be anxious to win this. Aside from the positive experience of recent years under Brian Cody, there is the consideration that the county would have to go back 48 years to find the last time it lost a league final and bounced back to win the All-Ireland.
Today more resembles 2002 than 2003 in the sheer scope of the team rebuilding. Laboratory reports will be processed on four players: Jackie Tyrrell, Bryan Barry, Eoin Larkin and Richie Power. The signs are, however, promising for a major injection of new blood in this year's championship.
Like Tipperary two years ago, Clare have inflicted Kilkenny's only defeat of this year's league to date. That match was a watershed for both teams. It came after a desperately disappointing performance by Clare against Galway. In the aftermath Anthony Daly looked genuinely downcast. In their pomp, Ger Loughnane's team disdained the league but Daly knew that a succession of disappointments wasn't going to wreck anyone's heads except their own.
Even in experimental mode, Cody wouldn't be easily reconciled to the sort of trimming that Kilkenny got in their back yard from Clare a week later. And the team has been altered substantially from that day with six changes of personnel and the key tactical switch of Tommy Walsh - and, less significantly, DJ Carey - up into the forwards.
Walsh's ability to get points made his re-assignment a plausible move considering the extent of the reliance on Henry Shefflin but there have been signs, that for all his versatility, the Tullaroan phenomenon is a little disorientated by the fluctuating demands on his considerable talent.
Clare have done their own redirecting with Frank Lohan back in defence, Colin Lynch resuming at centrefield and Conor Plunkett improvising in attack in the absence of Tony Griffin, who has now returned for the summer and is expected to see action at some stage today.
The big pay-off of the recent good form has been the confidence of the forwards. Niall Gilligan's prolific returns are nothing new but Tony Carmody and Andrew Whelan are breaking new ground as is newcomer Barry Nugent, whose power play has added some attacking presence to the half forwards.
That forward improvement will be well tested this afternoon. Physical commitment and ingenious tactical manoeuvres took Clare to within an ace of ambushing Kilkenny last summer but it was the disparity in class up front that decided the matter.
Kilkenny will test the extent to which that has been addressed. They do, however, have the edge. Thurles is their favourite venue (they won only one of four trips to Croke Park last year) and so far they have avenged championship defeats against Cork and Wexford. Considerably strengthened since that March encounter, they now have an early opportunity to set the record straight at Clare's expense.
CLARE (probable): D Fitzgerald; F Lohan, B Lohan, G O'Grady; A Markham, S McMahon, G Quinn; B O'Connell, C Lynch; C Plunkett, D McMahon, B Nugent; T Carmody, N Gilligan, A Whelan.
KILKENNY: J McGarry; J Tyrrell, N Hickey, J Ryall; R Mullally, P Barry, JJ Delaney; D Lyng, B Barry; M Comerford, E Larkin, T Walsh; R Power, DJ Carey, H Shefflin.