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PREVIEW: Baptism of fire in novel championship

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With no form guide of any description to cling to, Eoin Brennan was handed the straight forward task of evaluating arguably the most competitive first round draw this century.

Inagh-Kilnamona v Clooney-Quin @ Cusack Park Ennis, Friday 7pm
They’ve shared the honours evenly over the past two championship encounters in 2014 (Inagh-Kilnamona 2-12 Clooney-Quin 1-13) and 2016 (Clooney-Quin 4-13 Inagh-Kilnamona 1-19) but a lot of water has flowed under the bridge in both camps since.

12 months later, Clooney-Quin bridged a 73 year gap by reaching the county final and should really have added to their sole 1942 title success when also snatching the whip hand against Sixmilebridge in that decider. The ‘Bridge somehow got out of jail though and the element of surprise had vanished by the replay as Sixmilebridge’s superior winning know-how came to the surface to cement a third title in five years.

Inagh-Kilnamona’s greatest occasion was also spoiled by the men from Garneyside as last year’s semi-final saw Fergal Hegarty’s young side lead by four points entering the final quarter only to be outflanked by a resurgent Sixmilebridge who managed to hit six unanswered points on their way to a 0-18 to 0-15 win that again yielded Canon Hamilton success.

Sixmilebridge aren’t providing the obstinate stumbling block this Friday thankfully as Inagh-Kilnamona and Clooney-Quin bid to recapture those previous heights. Inagh-Kilnamona, thanks to Under 21A triumphs in 2016 and ’18 which bookended a Minor A title to boot in 2017, are undoubtedly maturing with every passing season. And while that flooring semi-final defeat ten months ago was ironically their last competitive outing, it should still be a keen motivational tool to go one significant leap further in 2020.

There will be plenty of minefields to come in an unprecedented championship journey that has ensured far less preparation time that ever before. However, getting off to a winning start will be essential for their continued development.

Clooney-Quin have also reaped the rewards of a sustained resurgence at underage level but perhaps it is a year or two too soon to see any major benefits at adult level. Instead, Peter Duggan’s year away has dominated the pre-championship conversations at both club and county level, having soared to three top scorer awards in as many years, twice in the county championship in 2017 and ’19 while also having the greatest honour of being the country’s top championship marksmen in 2018 on his way to an All-Star.

Bridging that gap at club level is monumental but in Jimmy and Mike Corry, Ryan Taylor, Fergal Lynch and Martin Duggan, they are not short of firepower or leadership for that matter.

Only a puck of a ball has separated Inagh-Kilnamona and Clooney-Quin in their recent meetings but if they pick up where they left off in 2019, the Combo possess the greater strength-in-depth to be able to negotiate their way into the winners half of the Round 2 draw.

Verdict: Inagh-Kilnamona

Clonlara v Newmarket-on-Fergus @ O’Garney Park Sixmilebridge, Friday 7pm
They haven’t been frequent opponents in the championship but when Clonlara and Newmarket-on-Fergus do lock horns, it tends to be at a critical juncture. Of course, their most memorable clash was the unique county final of 2008 that boasted an average age of 23 across both sides. Newmarket felt they had paid their dues in the 2006 equivalent but would usurped by an even more fresh-faced Clonlara side that didn’t know what it was like to take a back step following county and provincial intermediate club success the previous year.

Clonlara would suffer their own heartbreak 12 months later at the hands of new incumbents Cratloe but only after defeating the Blues once more in the semi-final. While Newmarket had to wait until 2012 to finally break their Clonlara hoodoo, it was more than worth the weight as they edged out Clonlara by the minimum in the semi-final before ending their 31 year famine against Cratloe in the final. Indeed, Bob Enright’s side would complete the double that year as they also overcame Clonlara in the subsequent Clare Cup decider.

Their last championship clash came at the quarter-final stage in 2015 but it would go very much in Clonlara’s favour at 0-19 to 0-10. While they have largely had the better of their exchanges with Newmarket, Clonlara have been unable to add to their 2008 Canon Hamilton success despite reaching the last four stage in eight of the next nine seasons including final reverses in 2009, ’15 and ’16.

However, an unthinkable brush with relegation danger found themselves in the same boat as Newmarket in 2018 while additional early exits last year mean that both require a kick in the right direction on Friday evening.

The loss of Clare captain John Conlon through injury is a major setback to Clonlara’s hopes but their greater powers of regeneration offers renewed hope following a first ever Minor A triumph in 2018.

Equally Newmarket will look to youth as a potential springboard as last year saw the Blues go all the way to a replay in the Under 21B Final before securing the Minor B honours last October.

Still, with their greater sprinkling of inter-county performers at minor, Under 21 and senior levels in recent years, Clonlara will be expected to maintain their indian sign over Newmarket, with the carrot for the winners being the fact that their prior championship clashes have all resulted in the winners reaching a county final.

Verdict: Clonlara

Éire Óg v Sixmilebridge @ Cusack Park Ennis, Saturday 1pm
As recent history has repeatedly reinforced, when opportunity knocks against Sixmilebridge, one has to be ruthless in their execution. That was a lesson that Éire Óg certainly learned to their cost at the quarter-final stage last year but they weren’t the first and certainly won’t be the last to possess regret against the ‘Bridge.

Instead, Sixmilebridge rolled with the punches to dig out a 3-16 to 1-19 result before producing an even greater rope-a-dope feat against Inagh-Kilnamona in the last four on their way to claiming a fourth senior title in seven years over Cratloe.

In such an ultra-competitive championship that has thrown up seven different winners in the past 13 seasons, Sixmilebridge’s ability to eke out four titles has made them unquestionably the team of the decade. Granted, their championship defences has been less than impressive but if you were to offer any team a championship every second year, they would take your hand off without consultation.

Ending that biennial curse would be Sixmilebridge’s greatest feat this year though as not since Crusheen in 2010 and ’11 has any club in the county been able to put back-to-back titles together.

They certainly have the personnel, strength-in-depth and vast winning know-how and they can’t fall back on any hangover or exhaustion from the previous year’s exploits either as they haven’t had a competitive match since being humbled by Ballygunner on their own home patch almost ten months ago.

And yet they won’t have wanted to face the Townies in their first defence as aside from the obvious revenge factor, Éire Óg know that they are still to reach anywhere near their full potential. Four successive quarter-final appearances have failed to be capitalised upon despite having an inter-county spine at their disposal.

Grinding out an opening victory on Saturday could well be the perfect tonic to fulfilling that undoubted promise but with David Reidy a doubt, it’s still hard to bet against a Sixmilebridge side that invariably come up trumps when needed most.

Verdict: Sixmilebridge

O’Callaghan’s Mills v Broadford @ Cusack Park Ennis, Saturday 4pm
Having managed to put out one East Clare fire in last year’s relegation showdown, O’Callaghan’s Mills are now faced with Tulla’s replacements Broadford who possess their own blaze of enthusiasm, having finally ended their Intermediate hex.

Having scaled the heights of a first semi-final appearance since 1997 only 12 months previously, few, including themselves, would have anticipated such a downturn in the Mills’ fortunes in 2019. But while relegation isn’t a consideration this time around, they will still be determined to get back competing regularly in the right side of the championship.

The removal of the senior trapdoor however is perhaps more significant to Broadford who, having struggled to regain their senior status over the past five seasons, certainly won’t want to be anywhere near that grade again at all costs.

Instead, the 2020 campaign offers Broadford the opportunity to get reacquainted with their new surroundings and with nothing to lose and experience to gain, they can throw everything at this novel championship campaign and see where it takes them.

Broadford’s freedom is an unquantifiable threat that the Mills won’t relish as normally a more seasoned senior side can play upon any newcomer’s inexperience or underlying doubts.

While it has been six years since their last championship meeting, it won’t have been forgotten in Broadford’s camp at least that the Mills’ 15 point victory in 2014 greased the wheels of their subsequent relegation.

That said, the derby factor alone, while without any impassioned support from the sidelines, brings its own unique flavour to this contest as despite the otherwise logic to hold back any player carrying knocks for a winner-take-all second round, with two new management teams on board, neither will want to concede any ground this Saturday.

After all, in such a condensed championship, momentum could be a huge driving factor and therefore with local bragging rights at stake, the result here could make or break their season.

The Mills will enter as slight favourites considering their greater assuredness and experience throughout their spine but it’s a punt made without any great conviction.

Verdict: O’Callaghan’s Mills

Whitegate v Feakle @ O’Garney Park Sixmilebridge, Saturday 3.30pm
Outside of the understandable local rivalry, there’s a real edge between Whitegate and Feakle that’s difficult to quantify for anyone outside of East Clare.

The 2013 Intermediate decider between the pair certainly played a large part in that residual competitive edge on a day that Whitegate edged the honours by 1-13 to 1-10. So while Feakle joined them in the senior ranks 12 months later after beating Parteen, that defeat still lingers in the memory.

It does make for a very intriguing opening contest on Saturday, one which both sides will relish to kickstart their 2020 seasons as with relegation off the table, there should be no holding back from either camp.

After all, the threat of demotion has always been in the back of these sides’ minds, with Whitegate consistently staving off danger and almost thriving under the pressure gauge whereas Feakle have reached greater heights including a semi-final appearance in 2016 but did succumb to the drop 12 months later.

An immediate return to the senior ranks was bolstered by the experience of contesting a Munster Intermediate Final in 2017 and Feakle built upon that bounce last year by only going out at the quarter-final stage to Inagh-Kilnamona after extra-time.

Their collective ability to punch above their weight is a trait that Feakle admirably possess as numbers are continuously limited while the return of Martin Daly this year will be a considerable boost.

Don’t get me wrong, Whitegate are certainly not blessed with a huge pick either and they seem to perform best when their backs are to the wall which makes them a key threat here.

Still, with Shane McGrath, Oisin Donnellan, Steven Conway and Gary Guilfoyle providing the firepower, Feakle do have a sharper edge up front and it, along with the obvious motivational factor, could be decisive in an expectedly intense derby contest.

Verdict: Feakle

Clarecastle v Wolfe Tones @ O’Garney Park Sixmilebridge, Saturday 6.30pm
Once a great heavyweight rivalry that was highlighted by Wolfe Tones’ first championship triumph in 1996 and Clarecastle’s last crown in 2005, the mask has slipped somewhat at both sides of the divide in the intervening period.

The Magpies did contest semi-finals in 2007 and 2014 while Wolfe Tones last triumph came in 2006 but unfortunately the other end of the championship divide has provided more concern in recent years.

Clarecastle would be in the perilous scenario of relegation deciders in 2015 and ’17 while also brushing with the demotion series last season while Wolfe Tones actually went through the trapdoor in the senior championship culling of 2014 albeit that they did bound back at the first attempt with the welcome addition of provincial intermediate silverware to boot.

There won’t be any talk of danger for this championship campaign at least and therefore while this draw might have been an anxious nervy opener in normal circumstances, the new championship format does allow both to throw off the shackles and play with some degree of unburdened abandon.

And therefore it’s a draw that both sides would have welcomed and equally will be eying up as the ideal way to get the ball rolling for 2020.

The return of Aaron Cunningham is a huge boost to the Tones this year as his scoring threat alone will offer them an inter-county dual threat with Aron Shanagher that will be difficult to contain. In Cunningham’s absence, opposition teams could focus the majority of their attentions on Shanagher, even double marking him on occasions. However, the Tones, despite murmurings of injuries to Cunningham and Ben O’Gorman, will be a much more confident unit fronted by those twin dangermen.

Clarecastle meanwhile will look to continue their assimilation of youth into the senior ranks in order to end their long period of transition as having contested five of the last eight Minor A finals, the time is ripe to blood a new crop of Magpies.

They still have Bobby Duggan, Jonathan Clancy and Stephen O’Halloran leading their spine but perhaps the freshness and enthusiasm of an injection of youth could yield some encouraging signs for the future this year.

Especially if the rumours surrounding the involvement of Aaron Cunningham and Ben O’Gorman prove true, Clarecastle could shade a narrow contest.

Verdict: Clarecastle

Kilmaley v Cratloe @ Cusack Park Ennis, Saturday 7pm
With hurling matches as rare as exotic holidays this year, Kilmaley have had plenty of time to pour over the manner of their championship exit to Cratloe in Round 3 last September.

Having soared to a first Clare Cup crown in 18 years in July, it appeared the perfect boost for a real shot at also bridging a 15 year gap to their last senior championship title. But it didn’t quite work out that way as despite being floored by 15 points in that Clare Cup final, Inagh-Kilnamona would bounce back to reach the penultimate stage whereas Kilmaley perished in the last 12.

A blistering start saw Kilmaley deservedly move six points clear by the end of the opening quarter but amazingly would only score another five points for the remainder of the contest as Cratloe never reached for the panic button and duly found their feet to produce a 13 point turnaround at 1-16 to 0-12.

For Kilmaley, that defeat only compounded the frustrations of being pipped at the post by the same opponents in the previous year’s semi-final, a nervy shoot-out of more wides than scores that saw Cratloe also emerge on the right side of the result by the minimum.

Unfortunately, Cratloe’s highs haven’t been garnished by more silverware as aside from the memorable title wins in 2009 and ’14 (a senior hurling and football double), they have also suffer decider defeats in 2010, ’12, ’18 and ’19.

Both recent losses will have cut to the bone as Ballyea sprung to life in the 2018 version to blitz Alan Neville’s side while last October’s reverse to their nearest and dearest rivals Sixmilebridge doesn’t need to be further outlined.

Cratloe won’t want to be on the end of a third successive county final result but getting there would be a huge achievement in itself considering their dual ambitions in such a short space of time.

The question is how much Kilmaley have learned over the past two meetings with Cratloe? They have the ability to take a worthy scalp but Cratloe still enter as favourites.

Verdict: Cratloe

Crusheen v Ballyea @ Cusack Park Ennis, Sunday 1pm
Expect the unexpected is the only way to sum up Crusheen and Ballyea’s history over the past seven years. It began with the shock of the 2013 championship when then Senior B side took out the 2010 and ’11 champions thanks in the main to a ten point haul from Tony Kelly.

They would clash again in two more quarter-final bouts, sharing the honours evenly as Ballyea came back from a six point first quarter deficit to win by eight on their way to a first ever Canon Hamilton in 2016 whereas last year, Crusheen were the ones to spring a surprise and dethrone the champions when digging very deep to prevail by the minimum and reach a first semi-final since 2015.

Ballyea won’t need any extra motivation to face the same opponents again but this time they will be very wary of Crusheen’s threat, man-marking tactics and ability to work relentlessly in packs.

Having soared to titles in 2016 and ’18, Ballyea, on one hand, won’t want to be labelled with Sixmilebridge’s two year curse but their age profile suggests that there are potentially a lot more titles in them if they can negotiate their way through the tricky waters of the Clare Championship, especially in such a fragmented and uncertain season such as this one.

Crusheen’s injection of young talent last year proved hugely beneficial but they will need more new blood to fully replace the warriors of 2010 and ’11 and really challenge for honours.

The ambush factor is also gone from Crusheen’s armoury this time around so expect Ballyea to come out all guns blazing in the hope of avoiding another dogfight as they did come out second best in the physical stakes in last year’s version.

Tony Kelly and Niall Deasy’s scoring prowess will be central to Ballyea’s sole focus as the hunger and sharpness should be there in abundance for another anticipated rollercoaster championship ride.

Verdict: Ballyea

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