As the race commences each of the sixteen teams positioned at the starting line are eager to start with a win while the thought of knocking the champions off their perch will enter their minds as the season progresses. Páraic McMahon previews the opening round.
A change in structure to the Clare Senior Hurling Championship sees the group stages scrapped and the system used in the Senior Football Championship now implemented. The winners of the first round games advance to a winners section of Round Two and automatically avoid relegation. Teams who lose their first round tie end up in the losers group for Round Two.
The winners section of Round Two can secure teams a place in the quarter-finals if they win their second game while defeat hands them the safety-net of a Round Three place. Round Two’s losers group sees eight teams in the pot, the victorious four teams advance to Round Three while those who suffer consecutive defeats are immediately in a relegation battle. The four winning teams from Round Three will book their spot in the quarter-finals. This alteration puts an extra incentive on winning the first game as it puts teams under less pressure as any relegation worries instantly vanish with a Round One victory.
Crusheen vs Inagh/Kilnamona on 29/05/15 in Cusack Park at 19:30:
The honour of kicking off the 2015 Clare Senior Hurling Championship is bestowed upon Crusheen and Inagh/Kilnamona. Having come so close last year, John Carmody’s Crusheen are determined to get back to the business end of the championship but they cannot afford to overlook the challenge posed by Inagh/Kilnamona. Gerry O’Grady has been reverted back to defence for Crusheen this year filling the full-back berth and he is joined in defence by the Dillon brothers; Cathal, Cian and Shaun along with the hardworking Alan Brigdale while Donal Tuohy will be difficult to beat in between the posts.
Clare U21 All-Ireland winning captain of 2009, Ciarán O’Doherty is going well at midfield for the Blood and Bandages. In attack, Paddy Vaughan continues to be their main threat but there is certainly an over-reliance on the former Clare captain, recent addition to the Clare Senior Hurling panel Conor O’Donnell should ease the burden on Vaughan accompanied by Gearoid O’Donnell. Carmody’s side received a lot of criticism for their inability to get goals but they have been working on that during the Clare Cup with their tally of 6-12 versus Feakle a clear sign of this.
There’s a change in scenery in the Inagh/Kilnamona with Paul Queally taking the reigns as manager after guiding the club’s Junior side to the County championship last year. Such freshness can only help a side and while a number of players such as the Arthur brothers, Cathal Lafferty and the Glynn’s are unavailable, of that bracket only Eamonn and Brian Glynn were consistent performers, younger players are stepping up to mark most notably County minor Jason McCarthy.
They now face one of the most hardworking teams in Clare and Queally’s men will need to work like never before to overcome Crusheen and to have a say in this year’s championship. Kevin Hehir has been very impressive for the North Clare men at full back during the Clare Cup while his confidence is eased by the fact that Clare goalkeeper Pa Kelly stands behind him should he make any error.
Captain Milo Keane has lead the side by example showing the type of workrate that will be required, Haulie Vaughan has bundles of potential to dominate proceedings in the centre of the park while in attack Jason McCarthy could be one of the players to light up the Clare SHC and he will be aided by Ronan O’Looney and Conor Tierney to pick up scores.
Crusheen tend not to put too much emphasis on their first outing, the change in structure may change this but it is during the months of August and September that they hit form. A win is certainly within reach for Inagh/Kilnamona they just need to show a fierce workrate something they haven’t done before, if they do they are in good shape to win this game, if their tackling and chasing lacks intensity, Crusheen will win but if Inamona bring the game to the 2014 finalists the game will be theirs to lose.
Clonlara vs Clarecastle on 30/05/15 in Shannon at 13:00.
2014’s two beaten semi-finalists face off in Round One of the Clare SHC. Both sides have changed their management teams for the year ahead and the hope in both clubs is that this will make the difference in enabling them to go one stage further. With a proven CV when it comes to club management having guided Toomevara and Na Piarsaigh to Munster titles, Sean Stack is now the Clonlara boss and he wants to add a County title with Clonlara to that CV.
Colm Galvin’s emigration to the United States has hindered the Clare hurlers’ cause thus far and his presence will be greatly missed by the 2008 Champions this weekend. Stack has for some bizarre reason decided to put one of the best attackers and target-men in the country namely John Conlon at centre-back in the side, a position the towering primary school teacher has little experience in, such a move is greatly weakening their attack and it is an unnecessary move as Nicky O’Connell has proven to be one of the better centre-backs in Clare in recent years.
Ger O’Connell continues to be a constant source of experience and encouragement for the South East Clare side while Domhnall O’Donovan will be expected to limit the damage caused by the Clarecastle attack. Darach Honan and Cathal O’Connell will start in the Clonlara attack and if the duo wreaks havoc they could win the match between them. Ian Galvin looks set to make his mark in the Clare hurling scene and the SHC is the best arena for him to do this. Micheál O’Loughlin adds an extra bit of youth in attack and it is a chance for him to impress the Clare U21 management ahead of the upcoming Munster Championship.
Clarecastle now have former All-Ireland winning captain, Tommy Dunne in their corner and the Tipperary man will be aware of the Stack methods having played under him with Toomevara. Dunne is a big scoop for the Magpies and it can only help to build on their impressive performances of the year gone by. However, the 2005 Champions were dealt a massive blow over a week ago as Clare U21 panellist Gearoid Ryan broke his leg, he will be joined on the sideline by Conor Plunkett, Derek Quinn, Eamon Callinan, Pakie Healy and Darragh Moloney all of whom are injured.
The responsibility then falls to Stephen O’Halloran, Jonathan Clancy, Bobby Duggan and Patrick Kelly the quartet who led by example in 2014 as a first semi-final appearance in seven years was obtained. While Clarecastle will certainly have a big say in how the championship race unfolds, the amount of injured personnel against a quality opposition would suggest they will have to come through the losers section of Round Two before advancing to the third round.
Newmarket-on-Fergus vs Feakle on 30/05/15 in Sixmilebridge at 14:00:
In their first outing in the Senior grade for over fifteen years, Feakle take on Newmarket-on-Fergus a side that have fell down the rankings in the Clare hurling scene. The East Clare side are accustomed to winning following an incredible year for the club that saw the Intermediate Championship won while they also reached the Munster semi-final only to lose by the minimum to Cappoquin.
Add in the fact that in their Clare Cup campaign, they have won their last three games back to back and it shows the momentum that is with them. It must be noted that this game doubles up as the Clare Cup fixture between the sides with the winner advancing to third spot in the table so the incentive to win is even bigger.
Club secretary, Val Donnellan is in charge of the side following a speculated crisis but recent displays suggest anything but. For Feakle a win ensures their senior status for 2016 and so this game is almost a County Final for them as staying afloat is their main goal and they would be quiet pleased to take the Newmarket’s scalp in the process.
Now under the guidance of Colin Lynch, Newmarket’s form has been mixed in the Clare Cup and they have yet to set the world alight. The Blues will be without the Barrett brothers; Enda and David due to injury while Shane O’Brien Snr is also unavailable. It remains to be seen if they will have access to the Newmarket Celtic trio of Eoin Hayes, Eoin O’Brien and Stephen Kelly who have a Cup Final tie with neighbours Bridge Utd on Saturday evening. Any of the six players leaves a gap in the Newmarket team let alone all six.
Despite winning their opening three games in the 2014 championship, the Blues were defeated by Crusheen in the quarter-final although they led for fifty seven minutes of the clash and ultimately that is what their 2014 is remembered for so a new year gives them a chance to set the record straight. The start of this game is crucial, if the Blues are to be victorious they will need to dominate early on, if Feakle are still in with a shout they may be too difficult to shake aside.
Kilmaley vs Whitegate 30/05/15 in Sixmilebridge at 15:30:
Relegation battles separate the boys from the men and that was the case for both Kilmaley and Whitegate in 2014 as they showed hunger and mental strength to avoid being one of ‘famous five’ that would end up playing Intermediate in 2015. The next step for both is to replicate that hunger and mental strength for every game and not just the do or die ones.
Neither side has opted for change in the management front with PJ Kennedy still in charge of Kilmaley while Mike Ryan occupies the Whitegate hotseat for another season, such continuity will help both clubs. Kilmaley will have more confidence having captured the U21 hurling crown earlier on in the year and the task for them is to push on at Senior level having been the most impressive underage club in Clare. Whitegate cannot boast such success but they have blooded a select few players in recent years.
Kilmaley have a mix of youth and experience in their ranks, with some of their elder statesmen reaching the twilight of their careers this year could see them have a lengthy run provided younger players put in consistent performances. Should the 2004 Champions hit the right notes and dynamic through Conor Cleary, Eoin Enright, Aidan McGuane, Michael O’Malley, Ken Kennedy, Alan Markham, the McMahon brothers and the injured Daire Keane, it increases an already difficult task in trying to beat them.
Whitegate relish the underdog tag that is flung in their direction each year with many constantly tipping them for the drop, they feed off the feeling of proving their critics wrong. Although new players have been added to the East Clare team, only Eoin Quirke has stood out from the younger brigade. Captain, Brendan Bugler will set the example while Andrew Fahy, Colin Burke, Quirke, George Waterstone and Colm Madden will follow suit.
Daire Keane will be a loss for Kilmaley in attack but if they perform there is a place in the knockout stages for their taking. However they need to get over the first hurdle and it’s a tricky one to leap over, should they fall they may not get back up but expect them to jump over this hurdle but it won’t be easy, against Whitegate it never is.
Sixmilebridge vs Éire Óg on 30/05/15 in Cusack Park at 16:45:
Picked by many as the tie of the round, a repeat of the 2000 County Final looks set to be a tight affair. Sixmilebridge have been in flying form during the Clare Cup with six wins from six. After relinquishing their crown as County Champions with little fight in 2014, they are keen to make amends and they have utilised the League to lay down a marker.
Jamie Shanahan looks set to miss the majority of the Championship but they have been boosted by the transfer of Ennistymon man Cathal Malone who is a viable target for Derek Fahy’s puckouts. There has certainly been an over-reliance on Niall Gilligan in the Bridge team with only Seadna Morey and Shane Golden stepping up to the mark when attacking with the ball. Clare U21 panellists Brian Corry and Alex Morey along with Conor Deasy have all done well up front in the League and they must now reproduce that form.
Defensively they set up quiet strong with the likes of Caimin Morey, Aidan Quilligan and Noel Purcell giving opposing forwards small margins for error. That defence will certainly be tested by one of the best forward lines in the County this Saturday. With names like Shane O’Donnell, David Reidy and David O’Halloran in attack, Éire Óg possess seriously talented forwards with pace to burn.
However the Ennis club have been forced to play Reidy at midfield when a lack of play is in their attack. The Townies came to within minutes of beating Cratloe in last year’s quarter-final, deterred by a moment of madness which saw Barry Nugent shown red; they lost the lead and the game subsequent to this. They will take confidence in the fact they picked up the Senior B title and ran Cratloe close but that’s gone now and Seamus Durack’s side must continue that progression.
Sixmilebridge man John O’Meara is well aware of the Éire Óg players having trained them to Intermediate success in 2011 and every piece of background knowledge will be helpful. Both teams will have a big say in how this Championship unfolds, defensively the Townies have somewhat improved but it may not be enough to stop Sixmilebridge.
Cratloe vs Ballyea on 30/05/15 in Cusack Park at 18:15:
Sitting at the top of the pile in Clare, Cratloe are the envy of all the clubs in the County with each eager to dethrone the 2014 Double Champions. They have a difficult assignment when going toe to toe with Ballyea this Saturday evening. Doubts remain over the fitness of Conor McGrath but the ace attacker could well feature for Cratloe as they begin their title defence.
For some teams their League form is a reliable barometer to judge how their Championship will go, with Cratloe the League is not the be all and end so very little can be taken from their 2015 displays so form. After suffering a heartbreaking defeat to Kilmallock in the Munster Final, they will want to set the record straight; with players like Conor Ryan, Liam Markham, Cathal McInerney, the Collins brothers, Shane Gleeson and McGrath this is certainly within their potential but they must focus on each game as it comes and that’s what they will do.
Martin Oige Murphy is ruled out of action with a long-term injury so David Collins may be handed a starting spot in the Cratloe side.
During the Clare Cup, Ballyea have been too cocky and complacent thus defeats to Parteen and Smith O’Briens have occurred. There is no fear about the standard at which they’re County representatives are playing at, but for their own benefit Ballyea should be aiming to be in the top brass of the Clare Cup so that their club players are playing at the highest level within the County.
This links in with their dependency on Tony Kelly, Jack Browne, Paul Flanagan and Gearoid O’Connell, the quartet expected to always perform and when the four have an off day so too do Ballyea. Now trained by David Forde the Claret and Amber will be eager to go further than the last eight, they’ve been handed a difficult draw to start but sometimes it’s the best way to begin. Cratloe’s balance all over the field should get their title defence off to a winning start but it will be a close one.
O’Callaghans Mills vs Tubber on 31/05/15 in Cusack Park at 12:30:
Ask a keen follower of the Clare Hurling Championship to name two of the most difficult teams to play against and the chances are O’Callaghans Mills and Tubber will be named if not both. Two sides that refuse to give an inch and are known to fight for their cause till the bitter end.
The Mills reached the quarter-final in 14 only to go down to a John Conlon inspired Clonlara with the Clare forward hitting 3-11 over sixty minutes as the East Clare outfit failed to curb his influence and took too long to attempt to do so. They also suffered defeat in the Senior B Final replay and so their objective at the outset is to go further than they did last year.
Their experienced players like Patrick Donnellan, Conor Cooney, Bryan Donnellan and Adrian Flaherty are key to their cause while the younger folk such as Ciarán Cooney, Jamie Lynch, Aidan O’Gorman, Colin Crehan and Jacob Loughnane are beginning to make their mark at Senior level.
Meelick man Conor Dolan is now in the Tubber hotseat and his main challenge will be getting them to produce big performances every day and not just when their backs are to the wall in games when they flirt with relegation. Having earned a reputation for causing a major upset each year, Tubber are approached with caution and the Mills will be no different. Like their opponents Tubber’s main men are those around the block for a while, the Earleys; Conor, Clive, Blaine and Mark, Patrick O’Connor and David O’Donoghue. Their weakness would be the lack of youth with just Ronan Monaghan adding some flair.
Neither side will spare the other and it is an ideal chance for both teams to dispel any relegation worries early on but the Mills look like they will be the team to do this at the weekend.
Clooney/Quin vs Tulla on 31/05/15 in Cusack Park at 14:00:
A similarity between these neighbours is dissatisfaction with their previous championship campaign, indeed they are not satisfied with recent years as they have failed to have a say in how the Championship pans out. What better way to shake off the frustration of years gone by than starting as they mean to go on at the weekend and that is to start with a bang.
It’s been a mixed year so far for Clooney with a struggle to put a management in place tied with an average Clare Cup. The fact that Peter Duggan, Shane McNamara, Cillian Duggan and Ryan Taylor are now training at the highest level in Clare will boost their chances and it puts them in a strong position. Add in the familiarity of Conor Harrision, Fergal Lynch and Donnacha Murphy to the Clare SHC and you find a Clooney team with potential.
However their mentality has left a lot to be desired with a high rate of silly fouls and a number of players being sent for early showers.
Tulla have club legend and former Clare hurler, Brian Quinn in charge, interestingly it was a former Clare hurler and club legend that led them to the promised land in 2007 when Jim McInerney managed them to County title success.
Having won the U21 B title earlier on in the year, the Windswept will have momentum in their side along with young players confident of making the step-up. They still have some of the warriors from 07 such as Eugene Cooney, Paul Lynch, Phillip Brennan, Sean Torpey, Aidan Lynch and Andrew Quinn. Since then one of their own David McInerney has earned a deserved reputation as one of the standout players in the country and he is crucial to their cause along with Darragh Corry who is an injury doubt.
Extra-time could be needed to separate these sides; if Clooney are pulled up for their indiscipline, Tulla will reap the rewards but if they keep their cool both on and off the pitch they may just sneak the win.