Clare put their All-Ireland and Munster titles on the line this evening in Cusack Park when Waterford come to town, Páraic McMahon looks ahead to the clash.
It’s a new beginning for the Clare U21 Hurlers as for many they step into the unknown surroundings of knockout inter-county hurling. Manager, Donal Moloney finds himself in familiar territory but is minus some loyal soldiers both on and off the battle-field as he prepares for his first inter-county tie without former Joint Manager, Gerry O’Connor by his side.
Only six members of Clare’s current panel featured in the 2014 All-Ireland U21 Final, namely; Keith Hogan, Jamie Shanahan, Conor Cleary, Bobby Duggan, Shane O’Donnell and Shane O’Brien. Shanahan is ruled out for the remainder of the season while Miltown man Cleary has been appointed team captain. From the U21 class of 2014; fourteen of the eighteen players that played in the 2-20 to 3-11 win over Wexford are now part of Davy Fitzgerald’s panel. Such a high number shows the faith placed in the U21 grade by the Banner boss but it also stresses how vital it is that players grab the opportunity with both hands as this is one of the biggest stages they will get to perform on and the longer the campaign the more chances they will get to impress.
Key to Clare winning three All-Ireland U21 titles in a row was the performances of the more experienced players. When push came to shove, the likes of Conor McGrath, Conor Ryan, Patrick O’Connor and Shane Golden led the way in 2012, Podge Collins, David McInerney, Paul Flanagan, Cathal McInerney and Davy O’Halloran took control in 2013 while the ever-present bunch of Tony Kelly, Colm Galvin, Aaron Cunningham, Seadna Morey and Cathal O’Connell made their experience count in allowing the Banner blitz all those who stood in their path. So now the baton is passed on to the 2015 crop and while just six of them played in the 2014 Final, the majority of the 2014 panel are still underage and it is indeed strong panels that lay the blueprint for success.
Conor Cleary, David Conroy, Michael O’Malley, Bobby Duggan, Shane O’Donnell and Ryan Taylor are current members of the Senior panel and they will be vital cogs in the Clare engine. Keith Hogan is now in his final year at U21 and will play a crucial part in deciding whether or not the Banner advance. Players like Aidan McGuane, Kevin Hehir, Shane Taylor, Eoin Quirke, Shane Gleeson, Ben O’Gorman, Niall Deasy and Stephen Ward have all stepped up to the mark in local games but they must now replicate this on a bigger stage. Stages don’t come much better than a packed Cusack Park for knockout Championship hurling and while it is a pressurised situation it is one that should be cherished.
For the first time since Clare made their long-awaited U21 breakthrough in 2009, they haven’t been named as serious contenders with the Déise instilled as red-hot favourites for this one. Moloney’s men will need to adapt a fearless mentality and refuse to give the visitors an inch as they encroach in Clare’s backyard. Waterford boasts serious talent in their squad such as Austin Gleeson, Colin Dunford, Shane and Stephen Bennett, Tom Devine, Patrick Curran, Tadhg de Burca and Conor Gleeson. The general expectation is a Waterford win but if the men in Saffron and Blue rise to the occasion there is nothing to stop them from winning. Interestingly this clash has delayed the €2.3 million redevelopment of Cusack Park, Clare now need to put in a display that is worth the wait.