June Bank Holiday weekend. A time to relax, time to travel to the seaside resorts and attempt to take in a sunny summer day (once in a blue moon). Clare and Limerick hurling fans will have to curtail those plans this weekend as local rivals clash in Semple Stadium, Thurles to decide who will be the first team to advance to the Munster SHC final. Hawkeye Sidekick attempts to throw away his Limerick loyalty to one side and preview the game (but it will be difficult). Deep breathe at the ready!
Clare in confident mood
Changes aplenty in Clare Senior Hurling team circles this year. Davy Fitzgerald jumped before he was pushed and resigned from the managerial role despite winning the NHL crown last season (a bit of Louis van Gaal at United syndrome last season there).
Clare have decided to place faith in Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor as the joint management team. Their resume is impressive with three All Ireland U21 titles a standout.
The fact that the Clare management duo have worked with the majority of the squad before during this reign has meant an effective transition. The other development of note was the retention of Donal Og Cusack in the management backroom staff who was positively received by the hurling panel last season.
The NHL 1A campaign on reflection was a mixed bag for the Banner County. Two wins over Dublin at the end of the league campaign staved off relegation. A noteworthy goal salvo performance over a hapless Kilkenny was also a high point.
All wins were at the confines of Cusack Park, Ennis and the away form was extremely poor. An underwhelming performance against Cork was a low point where work rate and physicality was well off the level required.
There were losses against Tipperary and Waterford but these encounters were close affairs. Tipperary game was in the melting pot until the final quarter when a player dismissal proved decisive. The league performances by and large without the influential Tony Kelly who was on club duty.
Clare have being going well in challenge games in recent weeks. A much reported win against Galway in a challenge game a couple of weeks ago has boosted confidence in the county.
The question for Clare this season is what brand of hurling do they go with? The much maligned sweeper system was used by the previous regime with various success but when it came to championship, opposition exploited space out the field scoring long range points and also running with ball in hand to create openings evident in Galway’s championship triumph last year. Clare have excellent pacy forwards and fast ball is paramount for players such as Shanagher, Conlon to influence proceedings. Intriguing tactics questions for Clare to answer.
Tony Kelly still remains a pivotal figure. Mercurial is an overused word but the player’s ability to roam around, take ball from deep and make attacking opportunities happen is sublime. Limerick have a decision to make on Sunday; do they deploy a man marker or do they go zonal on a player who has the capability and skill set to win the game on his own. Limerick refused to deploy a man marking system last season in the qualifier loss to Clare with devastating effects as Kelly was a major factor in a Clare win. Attention to Kelly may mean more space for other Clare players in the forward line creating game winning contributions.
Clare defensively are an abrasive unit; physically imposing with the likes of Cleary and Dillon forming the centre back and full back slots. McInerney is a superb player with superb pace and game reading capability but not sure that corner back is his spot; he has being deployed as a sweeper at times but perhaps wing back is his favored position. Limerick will not get anything soft from this Clare defensive unit despite a huge loss in Conor Ryan who is sitting out this season.
Limerick consistency the key?
This is a strange buildup for the Limerick hurlers. It is hard to gauge where this current panel are in terms of squad development and performance. The early week news that influential wing back Diarmuid Byrnes and midfielder William O’Donoghue were out of the Clare game was a hammer blow but news of the potential unavailability of vice-captain Gearoid Hegarty is an ominous sign. All negatives despite recent challenge games against Cork and Waterford which have gone well.
Limerick will be massive underdogs for Sunday. The NHL 1B campaign hardly set the world alight. The two key fixtures in the regular season saw defeats to the hands of Wexford and Galway. A win against Cork in Pairc Ui Rinn was unexpected in some quarters but the optimism was deflated quickly when Galway demolished a naive Limerick performance at the Gaelic Grounds in the NHL semi-final. The issue of performance consistency is an issue for this side; they have showed flashes of potential but apart from the Cork league victory, it has being in very short supply.
New manager John Kiely has stressed that this season is a work in progress; a panel in development mode. The backroom staff at Kiely’s disposal is superb. Paul Kinnerk’s work with Clare in recent years has being highlighted. Joe O’Connor comes on board as strength and conditioning coach. Jimmy Quilty comes with a good reputation. You would hope that management have left no stone unturned to seek the advantages required to get over the line this weekend.
Where are the strengths for Limerick? Byrnes is undoubtedly a massive loss. The Patrickswell player was a standout in a disappointing season last year but there is options for management. Gavin O’Mahoney potentially will come into the starting lineup and form a half-back line with Declan Hannan at half-back and Seamus Hickey on the other wing. An experienced half back line and hopefully game smarts to protect their inside full back line who were left exposed at times last season.
Richie English, Sean Finn and Richie McCarthy potentially will be the unit and they will be abrasive and tight marking. McCarthy at full back will be an interesting side note; pace issues were exposed last season so it will be interesting to see how the Blackrock has managed that side of his game this season. English has all the attributes to be a star player but needs to take on the leadership of the unit this year. Finn is an up and coming talent. You also have Knockaderry’s Tom Condon as backup as well to fill multiple roles within the side.
Limerick midfield options will be interesting. O’Donoghue is ruled out so it will leave the onus on the likes of Paul Browne, James Ryan, Darragh O’Donovan to provide the platform for the Shannonsiders. When you add the likes of Cian Lynch who will look to create space in this area to assert influence, Limerick have options to challenge and upset Clare in the midfield area. For Limerick to win on Sunday, work rate and tempo will have to be on point. It was not at the level required last season and this year’s performance has seen a mixed bag.
The issues personally are in the forward line units. Hegarty will be a central player for Limerick on puckout strategy; the primary ball winner. Who in the Limerick side is going to step up and win the second ball and provide a secondary ball winning source in the half-forward line on Sunday?
Hegarty is only 50/50 to make the fixture which means that James Ryan will probably need to take on the mantle. Puck out strategy and variation will be key from Nicky Quaid for Limerick to create opportunities to their inside full forward line who have serious threat.
Lynch will look to roam and create space between the half and full forward lines. Shane Dowling at full forward is an excellent full forward; his free taking is superb so it is up to his colleagues to work hard and look to test Clare defensively by varying their tactics. Movement in the forward line units; intelligence to make dummy runs will be key — something that Limerick were abject on last season. Can they make Clare sit up and force a rethink in their strategy?
For me, there are too many questions with Limerick. The comments from John Kiely this week is hardly inspiring confidence. There is more hope than expectation that the county will produce a performance. Limerick have undoubted talent in the squad but with the key injury to Diarmuid Byrnes, this could prove decisive.
Right now, there are too many ifs for Limerick this weekend to work out to warrant or predict a win. Clare look a more settled side but there does not look much different to the style of play this season from last year.
Two teams who have dodged the big guns and is a massive opportunity to get to a provincial final and minimum All Ireland Quarter Final appearance.
Clare get the nod by a couple of points (3 / 4 points) as Limerick’s inability to perform at a consistently high enough level during the seventy minutes will be exposed. Limerick to me are massive underdogs, but that is when this team is most dangerous. Roll on Sunday and hope Limerick prove me wrong!