*Cathal Malone has been named to play at full-forward. Photograph: Martin Connolly
One of the darkest days I experienced as a Clare hurling supporter was last year when Clare were decimated by Limerick in the Gaelic Grounds.
The Limerick supporters revelled in their team’s superiority as Clare fans headed for the exit following the 18-point drubbing that had been dished out. Amid all that is going on currently, the people of Clare will be looking to our hurlers this Sunday to exorcise the demons of last year and give us all a much-needed lift.
In this unique Covid championship, preparations will have been difficult. This is especially true for a new management team, such as Brian Lohan’s. Brian will have wanted to put his stamp on the team over a full year. However, he has been dealt a very different hand. Shortened pre-seasons favour established managers who have developed a style of play over several years as the players can fall back into their system with greater ease following the break. It will be a huge challenge for Brian to get the team playing in the style he envisions in such a short period of time.
The players and management of all county teams deserve huge credit for putting in a trojan effort to field teams for this championship. When the evenings shorten and the ground softens, heading out to training is not always the easiest thing. Add to this the necessary restrictions they have to operate under to ensure that everyone is kept safe and it makes for trying times. It is shameful that the team have not had showers available to them in Caherlohan after training and hopefully this will be rectified for both our county teams soon.
Early signs for Lohan in the league were positive. Clare went unbeaten and have the opportunity to win the competition on Sunday. It would be a sensational start to Lohan’s tenure as manager if he could pull that off.
In order to do this, we will have to have learned from the mistakes of last year. The most decisive factor in Limerick’s rout of Clare last year was the dominance of the Limerick half backline. Clare half forwards played too deep on that occasion and allowed Declan Hannon et al dictate the play. Such was the accuracy of his delivery and the movement of the Limerick forwards, the Clare backs had no chance. Our forwards will have to disrupt this launchpad and put them under pressure.
The Limerick full backline has been identified by many as an area where they could be vulnerable. With Mike Casey suffering an injury, as well as Richie English fighting to get fit following his cruciate ligament injury, it may well be an area which Clare can exploit.
While the COVID season has its challenges for management teams it also proves difficult for hurling columnists to predict the teams! The Clare management have kept their cards close to their chest and we do not know how they will line up. Many will feel the team named officially on Saturday will not be how they will line up.
The named full forward line will raise some eyebrows, Cathal Malone has done all his hurling in challenge games this year at wing forward and is playing well by all accounts. The man from Ennistymon had a good club campaign this year and it would surprise many if he were to play full forward rather than wing forward where he is more renowned. Whoever does end up filling the three inside positions will be aiming to supply goals. For Clare to be successful they will need to rock Limerick with goals, it is unlikely that we will outscore them on points.
Use of possession further out the field will also be key. In order to exploit any perceived weakness in Limerick’s full backline the delivery of ball needs to be plentiful and precise. This is made difficult by the huge work rate of the Limerick team. Their supreme fitness levels allow them to apply savage pressure on opposing teams and can lead to rushed and low-quality ball being hit into our forwards. Shooting far out from goal will not be a successful tactic for us this Sunday and it will be important that these players look to feed the ball inside.
While we will all watch on in hope that the lads win this game, it may be wishful thinking. Limerick have proven themselves to be at the top of their game over the last two years. The loss of key players from the Clare panel is a huge blow. From last year’s panel Clare are missing Conlon, Duggan, Collins, Ian, and Colm Galvin. Given our lack of success at under 21 level for the last five years, it is difficult to see how we can replace players of this calibre. Limerick have been the form team in the country for the past two years and have an established system under a proven manager, so Sunday’s game will be an excellent test for this Clare side. Unfortunately, I feel like this will be a step too far.