*Brian Lohan & Ken Ralph. Photograph: Sport Action Photography
AFTER A tumultuous off-season for Clare, we are now able to look forward to the year’s hurling.
Brian Lohan cast a wide net for the Munster League campaign which saw Clare face off against Tipperary and Limerick. There were many new faces tried in training and Munster League games and the Clare public will be hoping that Brian and his management team can unearth some new talent in the county. It is hard to read too much into those games and they do not give us a real indication as to how Clare will set out their stall this year. If there was anything that we could deduce from the games though, it would be that Brian seems to be targeting a more physical and direct approach to the game.
Clare’s half forward line featured several physically imposing players with the likes of Niall Deasy, Aron Shanagher, Diarmuid Ryan and Colin Guilfoyle all tried out. Clare will need some of these players to step up to the mark after the huge loss of Peter Duggan. Peter has arguably been Clare’s best hurler over the last three years and was a constant threat under puck outs while always contributing hugely on the scoreboard. Now that Peter will be missing this year’s campaign, Lohan will need to find other players to fill that void.
The change in the hurling league format for the current year sees Clare start the campaign at home to Carlow. They will also face off against Laois, Wexford, Kilkenny and Dublin. This structure may give managers more opportunity to experiment than in previous years. New management will have to balance experimenting to find new players and building a team which is settled. As such it will be notable who Brian selects through the spine of the team. He will try to keep the spine constant as much as possible and build around that. Having had a late start to his time in charge of the team he will need to establish all of this in a shorter period than he would have hoped.
As a result, it was extremely surprising to see that there was talk at county board level of playing club championship in April this year. Rounds of club championship at this time of the year could have a disruptive effect on our county team’s preparations. When I was involved in the county set-up, the idea of club games being played while the county team was preparing for Munster championship would not have been entertained by the management and as such, the issue was never raised. The county board and our clubs should get behind Brian and our county team and give them every opportunity to have the best preparation for this year’s Munster Championship.
The idea of a split championship does not do the club players any favours either. In Clare, I believe we have stumbled upon a really good format for our club championship. As a club player, it is very hard to prepare oneself and be at peak fitness for championship in April, then take a break of four months only to peak again, August through to October. Of course, the GAA needs to do more for the club player but I do not believe that a club month in April is the best approach. Most inter-county sides view this month as critical in their team’s preparations for the championship. As a result, April is often used for training camps and the demands of the county side are high. This leads to very restricted access of clubs to their county players and is not a meaningful club month.
If the GAA are really looking for solutions to the issues which face clubs today, they need to shorten the inter-county season. The inter-county game is our organisation’s flagship competition, but the club game is its lifeblood. The inter-county season should be shortened to a maximum of seven months of the year with All Ireland finals being played in July. This would allow clubs to develop a fixture list which is set in stone and allows players to plan around it. You could also guarantee that the club game would be played on good pitches in good conditions and this would lead to a higher quality product.
For now though Clare have to focus on their opening game against Carlow at home. Carlow at this time of year will be a formidable opponent and no walk-over for the lads. They play a defensive game and look to pack the defence. As a result, their forwards can sometimes be left isolated. If Clare can keep their discipline and not concede frees it will make it very hard for Carlow to score. On the other end Clare will need to use the ball well. When trying to pick apart the crowded defence that Carlow will likely set up with, it will be down to Clare to use the ball well and deliver a good quality ball to our forwards.
Clare will be looking to get off to a good start and get a win at home. I expect that they will win and hopefully start the year off on a positive note.