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While the Munster championship exploded into life last weekend with a great opener in Walsh Park, Clare fans will have earmarked 24th of April as the beginning of the hurling year.

While the format has changed in recent years, giving every team three game in Munster, have no doubt but that this weekend will have a knockout championship feel. It’s not overstating it to say that this is a must-win game for both Clare and Tipp.

Both teams have been written off outside of their counties. Naturally, Limerick were strongly favoured by all to progress from Munster. But Waterford have been nationally anointed as their number one contender, and Cork were seen as a shoo-in to go through in third place. Tipperary’s performance in Walsh Park last weekend, along with another capitulation on Cork’s part, will force many to reassess that analysis. The feeling now should be that qualification for Tipperary and Clare is very attainable.

As predicted here, Tipperary got off to a great start against Waterford and were the better team in the first half. In fact, if they had taken their goal chances, they may have built up enough of a buffer to come out on top. However, Waterford’s athleticism and power was evident, and came to the fore after the introduction of Barron and Gleeson. Waterford ran at Tipp in waves and got their gameplan going to take over in the second half.

Walsh Park is a tight field, and this may have played in Tipperary’s favour. Tipperary have incredibly skilful hurlers who are a joy to watch in full flight. Jason Forde, Mark Kehoe and Ronan Maher among others are gifted hurlers and they play a great brand of clever, direct hurling. The problem for Tipperary is that athletically, they are no match for Waterford.

The question for Clare is whether they too will be able to exploit this weakness in Tipp’s game. From a Tipp point of view, it is clear that they look to find Jason Forde and Noel McGrath regularly in the centre forward position. Both players are able to score at their ease from this position, and are capable of feeding nice ball into a dangerous Mark Kehoe on the inside line if Clare backs push up on them. Clare need to get this positioning right by crowding out the Tipp half forwards through the workrate of our midfielders and half forward line. This would allow our half backline to choose when to sit and cover and when to push up and disrupt Tipperary’s playmakers.

At midfield, Barry Heffernan is a strong physical presence and had it all his own way in Walsh Park before the introduction of Austin Gleeson and Jamie Barron. After the retirement of Colm Galvin, Clare has a hole to fill in midfield. Lohan tried a number of different players here throughout the course of the league, but there is still no obvious choice as to who will line out here.

No doubt, Tony Kelly would be excellent in this role, but I feel you lose too much scoring power by playing him that far from goal. His best performances over the last couple of years have been when selected in the full forward line. Bearing in mind the need for a defensive role from our midfielders to help out our half backs with Forde, McGrath etc. I would like to see Cathal Malone played in the middle of the field. Who should partner him is anyone’s guess: I feel that Ryan Taylor has established himself in the team over the last couple of years and would add a dynamism to Clare’s play in the middle of the field.

Waterford got a foothold in their game when forcing Tipperary to go long and getting numbers back to run the ball out of defence. While this left them outnumbered in their own forward line, the huge levels of workrate amongst their forwards made up for this. The key will be that when they do turn the ball over with numbers back, that they support the man in possession and do not hit aimless ball down to the Tipperary defenders who would have a numerical advantage. In last year’s game, Clare forwards’ movement caused the Tipperary defence huge problems. Ian Galvin was particularly troublesome for the Tipperary defence and hopefully he will be given the chance to do so again this weekend.

If not for the crazy decision by James Owens last year, I believe Clare would have had enough to win that game. Since then, the addition of Shane O’Donnell and Peter Duggan is a huge plus for this Clare side. Tipperary have lost some key players and are building a new team. They acquitted themselves well in their first round, a game where they showed motivation and hunger. That was a physical affair in Walsh Park and it was bound to take its toll on the players. While the game will benefit them in getting them to championship pitch, I think Clare should have the legs and finish the game stronger.

This Clare team is further along in their development than Tipperary, meaning that Clare can go and win this game in Tipperary’s backyard. If they do it will remain 37 years since Tipperary have beaten Clare in championship in Thurles.

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