Clare have edge but both teams’ focus should be on late July

It’s the Munster championship in May and losing might not be such a disaster

 Tony Kelly is still Clare’s Mr Reliable what is now a mis-firing forward line. Photograph: James Crombie

Tony Kelly is still Clare’s Mr Reliable what is now a mis-firing forward line. Photograph: James Crombie

 

This is a big weekend because the Munster championship is starting but how important is the actual outcome of tomorrow’s Clare- Limerick match in Thurles?

The reality is: will either team manager be distraught at losing by a point, especially as both counties will probably be stronger in a month’s time? Hurling in Thurles on the last Sunday in July is a lot more important than doing the same on the second-last Sunday in May and if I were managing a team, that would be at the forefront of my mind.

Bear in mind two statistics about the Munster championship. The first is that no team has made it through the three matches on the long side of the draw (having to play a quarter-final against one of the established hurling counties – it’s happened a couple of times in years when Kerry were involved) to win an All-Ireland since Cork in 1966.

Second, the record of the provincial winners in the All-Ireland has been really poor and it’s now 10 years since Munster champions went on to lift Liam MacCarthy. Both Tipperary and Clare have won the All-Ireland through the qualifiers in that time and both years they beat the Munster champions along the way.

I’m not sure that these statistics are all coincidences either. To win three big matches in the province drives up expectations and expends energy and that makes any team that comes through the long side of the draw vulnerable.

Intimidating
To win the provincial title, Sunday’s winners will have to play last year’s All-Ireland finalists Tipperary and then Munster champions Cork or the league holders Waterford. The qualifier route isn’t as intimidating, even if Clare did eventually lose their All-Ireland last year against Wexford.

Clare and Limerick are entitled to think of themselves as All-Ireland contenders. Clare won it two years ago and Limerick very nearly beat Kilkenny in last year’s semi-final. But looking at them in the league, you’d have to have reservations.

In the league quarter-final against Dublin, I was concerned by Limerick’s performance – and that was with a stronger team than they have tomorrow. Maybe they were deliberately holding back but a few of them didn’t look fully fit and were well off the pace; so that’s a huge improvement needed in only eight weeks.

I’m not one for believing that levels of performance are going to jump dramatically between league and championship. Older players like to frighten younger members of the panel by saying championship is going to be way tougher and faster than the league. It’s not and two months may not make a huge difference.

Clare’s final performance against Kilkenny in the relegation match was at a much higher level but overall they had a bad campaign. They’ve lacked consistency and have had to weather controversy over panel departures. Was there a feeling as well that they had put too much into last year’s league and left themselves drained by championship time?

I know getting relegated isn’t a disaster and that there’s plenty of good hurling in Division One B but I don’t think relegation is part of the plan for any county and a team with ambitions should be winning their home matches at least.

The reason Clare didn’t was down to a lack of cutting edge, not including Tony Kelly, which isn’t a good sign going into the championship. John Conlon has been relatively quiet by his standards, Conor McGrath is almost certainly injured and a likely huge loss ( if he’s selected to play that would have to represent a gamble which could potentially lay him off until August) and a lot has fallen back on Shane O’Donnell.

O’Donnell has been carrying the burden impressively and looked dangerous in Kilkenny with as good a defender as Paul Murphy on his tail – but he’d be much more dangerous with McGrath beside him.

Permanently missing

Compared to two years ago, Clare are permanently missing Podge Collins (now with the county footballers) and Colm Galvin (gone to the US for the summer); Brendan Bugler is suspended and McGrath injured.

In the matches I saw, Galvin was scoring as much as the forwards and McGrath was clearly their best forward until Shane O’Donnell started to come back. All four have won All Stars and then there’s Cathal McInerney, arguably one of their best forwards in 2014, who’s also gone to the footballers. That’s a huge loss of quality.

Davy Fitzgerald will feel that he will have better options in a month’s time but there is still pressure on him to deliver in the Munster championship. He is helped by Limerick’s own absentee problems. They’re short David Breen, Nickie Quaid and Kevin Downes and haven’t shown great form this year.

In the past they’ve been able to put disappointing league runs, as well as inquests and inquiries, behind them – they lost their manager a few weeks before last sumer and still beat Tipp – but it’s not easy to keep doing that. Also their first matches in the past two years have been in June, giving them more time to prepare.

How they played in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final was impressive. They had Kilkenny cooked until Richie Power’s goal and it was a huge performance in awful conditions. Limerick of August last year would have beaten Clare but they’re not currently at that level.

This time around you’d expect the motivation to put 2014 behind them will help Clare come out on top.

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