Clare’s time looks to be at hand
Enforced changes undermine Waterford’s challenge and the emerging talent of opponents can do the rest
Clare manager David Fitzgerald. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
Tomorrow in Thurles the Munster hurling championship gets under way with a fixture that also marked the counties’ first league assignment this year back in February.
Then, as now, a tight match was expected with Clare considered more likely to win. The consensus was half right – Waterford won by a point.
Manager Michael Ryan was highly pleased afterwards, having secured valuable points for the county’s ultimately successful bid to stay up in Division One A despite general expectations.
Bucking prevailing predictions will be even harder this weekend, as Clare have got significantly stronger in the past three months whereas Waterford are weaker. Two of the starting defence that day, Stephen Daniels and Shane Fives are out and the knock-on effect leaves the bench pretty thin on cover if things go wrong.
Clare on the other hand have Darach Honan and Cian Dillon fit again and although they are named on the bench, both may well start – Honan almost certainly. He has been back in training for over a month, lasted 80 minutes of the relegation play-off against Cork and recently hit 2-3 in eight minutes for his club Clonlara.
Conor McGrath is also back, adding to the firepower. Like Galway last year, Clare have also had the boost of playing in a hard-fought relegation play-off and winning it.
Waterford, who didn’t make the league semi-finals, have had no more competitive matches for two months.
Just five Waterford players remain from last year’s meeting between the counties. The break-up of the old team has continued but injuries have also affected what would have been Ryan’s first-choice team.
One of the changes is deliberate with Ian O’Regan regaining his place in goal for the first time in nine years despite Stephen O’Keeffe’s excellent season last year. The switch is said to be entirely based on form with O’Regan’s performances in recent matches and in training apparently excellent.
Still, 10 changes is a sizeable variation on 12 months ago when Waterford were tight enough winners by two points.
Despite this industrial scale turnover, the balance won’t necessarily lurch in Clare’s favour. The team is inexperienced for all the talent of the recent under-21s and combined good points’ totals with staggering wides’ counts.
Evidence suggests that this won’t be a feast of goals with Clare seemingly incapable of scoring more than a goal a match apart from in the Waterford Crystal Cup. Waterford haven’t proved scoring machines either, managing even fewer goals than Clare in the league (three as against four).
Clare are looking for a first championship success since 2008. Manager David Fitzgerald has set about promoting the All-Ireland winning under-21s to senior and the belief here is that they are ready to achieve lift-off. Waterford have been extremely resilient in the years since they started to fade, maintaining a level of consistent competitiveness that has made them hard to beat.
But by this stage their losses have reached critical mass and although they have lively, hard -working young forwards given direction by the indestructible Séamus Prendergast, Clare are on the development road for a little while now and tomorrow can start to motor.