IT’S safe to say that once more Clare expects.
The buzz is back, games are being won again and denizens of Clare Hurling Inc, be it the players and management in the front line, the loyal supporters (those who were among the 14,210 at the league final replay that is), the couch hurling supporters or those of the barstool variety are now looking to Munster and All-Ireland.
But stall the digger a bit, because even before a ball has yet been pucked in championship they’ve already delivered a huge amount for themselves and the county.
The Munster League was banked over the course of four games; the National League after an eight-game odyssey from the backwaters of Division 1B through to taking down Limerick, Tipperary, Kilkenny and Waterford to claim a first title in 38 years. Yet to be beaten in 2016.
They’re hugely impressive entries on any hurling CV, but more particularly when mirrored against where Clare have come from in 2014 and ’15.
The after-glow of the annus mirabilis of 2013 sustained them through the early stages of the first campaign, but from there the wheels came off the wagon spectacularly after the league semi-final defeat to Tipperary to the extent that thereafter the only competitive games between league and championship that went Clare’s way until the start of this season were the victories over lowly Offaly in an All-Ireland Qualifier and the Dubs in a Cusack Park league game.
A lot of those games were a matter of inches, but the old adage of ‘close but no cigar’ rings true, because at elite level the inches are the hard yards that were beyond Clare for a variety of reasons in those years whether they be defections from the squad, lack of discipline on the field, the absence of cool heads off the field, clubs v county stand offs, a moratorium on dual-star status, rows with journalists or whatever.
But the slate has been wiped clean — the page turned not so much to a new chapter, but a new book altogether.
In many ways the soundings coming out of the camp are the best barometer. Last year, at almost every turn it was a case of how great things were, singing from the same hymn sheet and all that. Indeed, it was said so often that it had all the appearances of people wishing it to be true, yet it clearly wasn’t.
This year there’s been nothing — just because there’s been no need to say anything, with everyone just comfortable in their own skin and concentrated on the business of their hurling and nothing else.
The results have been coming out on the right side of those games of inches, making those hard yards as they did against Tipperary in the league quarter-final when it looked like slipping away from them; against Waterford on both league final days when they struggled at times, but still found a way by the force of their hurling and never say die as much as anything else.
In short the mojo of July to September 2013 when they swept past Galway, Limerick and then Cork to All-Ireland glory is coming back as they prepare to take their first bow in championship 2016.
Clare’s record in the Munster championship has been dreadful over the past decade or so. When the Mike McNamara managed side beat Waterford in the 2008 Munster Quarter-Final it was Clare’s first championship victory since 2003 — they followed it up by beating Limerick in the semi-final, but since then all they’ve had to show for from the so-called ‘glory’ of the Munster Hurling Championship is the 2013 win over Waterford.
2016 is a glorious opportunity to set that record straight, but if it happens it will only be after the mother and father of a battle — and that’s x 2, with either Tipperary or Limerick to come in a Munster final should Waterford be overcome this weekend.
But as Davy Fitzgerald reminded everyone in Caherlohan on Thursday last when holding court for a series of interviews with members of the press — “this is what we want and we’re up for it.
“We want it going down the wire to see what we are about, to see what we are made of, to see if we can come out the other side.”
Waterford are the same, no doubt having spent the weeks since the league final mulling over their failure to close out the league final, not once but again and again over the course of the two days.
The first half of extra-time when they led by three when playing against the wind; the replay when they led by six points at three different stages yet failed to last the course.
Then there’s Tony Kelly to think about — how to hatch a plan to curb Clare’s talisman whose 1-6 elevated 2013 Hurler of the Year to the extraordinary as Clare claimed their first league crown since 1978.
Of course Clare have their own plan to hatch — the return of John Conlon rated only 50/50 by the Clare management ten days out from the game, would bring a physicality and ball-winning ability in the full-forward line that was sorely missing at various stages of both league finals.
If Aaron Cunningham is still hamstrung expect Colin Ryan, who had a telling cameo in the league final replay to be in from the start, while the unavailability of the injured David McInerney means that the defence will probably be the same as the last day.
Waterford starting Maurice Shanahan on the edge of the square would pose different questions for the Clare defence, in a game that itself poses many questions.
Traditionalists, but who really are they anyway, point some sort of decline in hurling when teams don’t go mano a mano, 15 on 15 and all that in the pursuit and playing of the ‘beautiful game’.
Hurling heretics, those men with tactics boards and innovative ideas. Then again, 50 years ago back in the summer of ‘66 the traditionalists called Alf Ramsey something similar when he dispensed with wingers, yet when England won the World Cup they were suddenly ‘wingless wonders’ and he won a knighthood.
The moral of story, once you win the tactics become the stuff of genius….and legend.
So it is that if Waterford park the bus across the middle third of the field and strangle the life out of the Clare defence and win, and if the tactic carries them to a Munster and Liam McCarthy Cup success they’ll have literally changed the course of hurling history.
Same with Clare if they scale the mountaintop for the second time in four years with their own carefully constructed brand and interpretation of the game .
But it’s about Sunday first. The fact that Clare could essentially give the Deise a two-goal start and still beat them in the league final replay shows the character within the team, as much as it does about the perceptation that Waterford have a soft underbelly and are far from the finished article.
Clare mightn’t be fully rounded yet either, but they have the greater firepower in the attack and that’s what can get them over the line and bring their unbeaten run this season to 13 games.
So it’s Conor McGrath and Tony Kelly, two leading All Star contenders already to lead the way, while those behind them in the pecking order like John Conlon, Shane O’Donnell, Podge Collins et al are no slouches either.
Do Waterford have that? Don’t think so. And that’s why this game is Clare’s to win an arm wrestle what would tee up only a second Munster final appearance since 1999.