LOUIS Mulqueen breezes into Temple Gate Hotel, grabs a sandwich, goes straight to the top table, gestures for Colin Ryan and Padraic Collins to gather around and gets ready to hold court.
“Is TK coming,” he enquires, before firing a text off, presumably to Tony Kelly, just as the hurler of the year and one of the global faces of Sky Sports GAA coverage strolls in the door and takes his place at the table.
It’s relaxed and it’s informal – the pressure cooker of Munster championship hurling that’s only a matter of days in the distance seems light years away.
Pressure might be for Mulqueen’s leaving certificate students at Rice College where he’s the principal as they face into their Irish exam this Tuesday, or pressure might be being a point adrift in injury time of an All-Ireland final.
But, pressure is not this.
“Pressure is exams, it’s a negative thing that leads to poor performance,” says Mulqueen. “I don’t see that with this team. It’s desire rather than pressure – if you miss a ball it’s a desire to win the next one, not pressure.
“Pressure is sometimes regarded as a negative, we don’t talk about pressure. We look at a desire to prove what we did last year was right, desire that we can achieve again, desire to keep Clare at the top.
“We had pressure last year when we weren’t champions. This team are very good under pressure, bring on pressure – it doesn’t matter to these young lads. They’re competitive, they’re going to give their all and they’re not going to be found wanting.”
These are the certainties in Mulqueen’s mind, but in tandem with that the selector takes a leaf out of Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘known unknowns’ when he talks about “lots of imponderables” ahead of Sunday’s maiden championship voyage for 2014.
“We don’t know what our form will be like. I can tell you if we played the game in September or October last year I know where I’d put my money. Six months later, seven months later you just have to see how we hit the ground running.
“We have to try and carry the form we had last year into this match – that’s the trick, that’s the balance we have to get right, mentally, physically and hurling wise.
“One thing we’re going in with is the confidence and the ability that we know we can perform. That is carried forward from last year – they went to the big stages, they won big matches and I think if I was a big player I’d want to be at the big stage and I’d want these big games.
“It’s not about who we play, it’s about us giving our best performance on our first day out. We are going into it cold and we going into it raw in that it’s unknown. I think we’re carrying a lot from last year – the confidence and the ability that the players have,” he adds.
And according to Mulqueen it’s because they’re so grounded. Tony Kelly may be fronting the Sky Sports promotional campaign with Dublin’s Michael Darragh McAuley, while Podge Collins is being gently ribbed by Mulqueen over his fashion sense, but it’s still all about the hurling – nothing else.
You see it in other sports and other codes that ego becomes bigger than the team – you see the superstars in soccer and they can’t do anything without it being publicised.
“These lads are grounded and know that by being that way they will get more out of themselves and achieve more. We had a great run last year as the year went on, but I still feel that this team can get better. This team won’t go away.
“You saw in two years how they developed, then you saw them win an All-Ireland. I still think they’re in a development curve. They took their opportunity last year and you don’t get too many opportunities.”
And so the latest opportunity swings by – eight months on from September and it’s the challenge of doing it all over again, just as Cork, Limerick, Kilkenny et al are itching to knock Clare off their perch.
“We took our chance, we won an All-Ireland and we played a great style of hurling,” says Mulqueen, “but everyone is adapting to that, everyone is training differently because they saw hurling changing a little bit last year because they saw the older hurling style change.
“There was more space last year, more movement. Teams are ready for that this year – you saw it in the league when every team was out to beat the All-Ireland champions. You got a guard of honour going out and then the ball was thrown in. All of sudden it was hurling and it was a wake-up call.
“Last year Tony Kelly came out of the blue and had space, but this year he’s a marked man. Podge (Collins) was flicking balls over his head last year and flashing them over the bar – will he get a chance to do that this year? Who knows?
“We want to stay at the top and that’s where Clare hurling needs to be. I don’t think you have to re-invent the wheel. I don’t think this team has to do anything too much different to be competitive and play well.
“It’s not adopting the old Arsenal Arsene Wenger mentality of the next match, but you can’t look too far ahead with this. We can’t focus beyond the 15th of June. If we come unstuck on the 15th of June we’ll be savaged by everybody, savaged by people saying ‘where has Clare hurling gone, what have you done’.
“This group of players have the desire not to give up on one – you cant’ say we’re going to win a second one, but we just have to win on the 15th of June.”

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