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*Tony Kelly and Ballyea are viewed as the main side capable of stopping Sixmilebridge’s three in a row bid. Photograph: Gerard O’Neill

At long last, it’s the return of the Clare SHC and Eoin Brennan previews the hotly anticipated action.

Group 1
Inagh-Kilnamona v Kilmaley @ Cusack Park Saturday 7pm

Considering the frequency of their underage meetings in finals and semi-finals over the past decade, it’s strange that Inagh-Kilnamona and Kilmaley’s senior championship derby meetings have been so rare. The last big competitive meeting was in the 2019 Clare Cup Final that went decisively in Kilmaley’s favour just before the championship.

However, even that win would have an adverse reaction when it came to the Canon Hamilton as a week later Kilmaley were ambushed by Éire Óg whereas Inagh-Kilnamona would make it all the way to the semi-finals.

Kilmaley are also no strangers to reaching the penultimate stage of Canon Hamilton race either, having had their own regrets from semi-final tilts in 2015 and ’18 which amazingly sandwiched a relegation to intermediate that was helped by a relegation reverse to Inagh-Kilnamona.

Their continuous conveyor belt of underage talent means that both have been installed as contenders over the past five years but as of yet, both have fallen short of the mark, predominantly for the same reason. Put simply, for all the skill, pace and movement, there has been a dearth of physicality and leadership that is not easy to find or manufacture.

In such a bearpit of a group, just getting over the line by whatever means possible will be key on Saturday evening, with Inagh-Kilnamona’s slight edge on grit perhaps enough to shade what should be a shoot-out.
Verdict: Inagh-Kilnamona

O’Callaghan’s Mills v Clonlara @ Cusack Park, Sunday 2.30pm

Not wanting to delve into the territory of melodrama, to paint this opening tie up as season-defining cannot be underestimated. When O’Callaghan’s Mills blazed through to a first final since 1993 last year with a mix of goal-hungry young guns and the guile of their experienced core, it seemed like the stars had aligned to finally bridge their interminable 83 year gap to their last senior crown.

Things didn’t exactly go to plan as they met a Sixmilebridge machine not willing to compromise or adhere to any romance and it means that the Mills are still desperately searching for that elusive breakthrough.

The evergreen core of Bryan Donnellan, Conor Cooney and Patrick Donnellan are back to try and redress the balance while the solace of Minor B (O’Callaghan’s Mills/Bodyke) and Junior A triumphs have only bolstered their options.

However, that determined drive won’t have been aided by being seeded in a savage group that will only allow two battle-hardened side progress unscathed.

Clonlara will be one of the Mills’ chief rivals having rather underachieved themselves. Back-to-back fine appearances in 2015 and ’16 felt like the end of an era but the boost of a historic 2018 Minor A success has provided renewed hope that Clon can get over their Canon Hamilton hoodoo.

A senior B crown was garnered without John Conlon and Colm Galvin so to have both back in the van allied to their three strong Clare Under 20 contingent in Colm O’Meara, Aidan Moriarty and Dylan McMahon suddenly provides an optimism that could well get them over the line in the familiar surroundings of Cusack Park if they can joined the dots in time.
Verdict: Clonlara

Group 2
Sixmilebridge v Clarecastle @ Cusack Park, Friday 7pm
For all their great showdowns of the past, this is unlikely to rekindle that rivalry just yet as it’s essentially a case of two sides in completely different levels of development.

Sixmilebridge were unquestionably the team of the last decade and are still current kingpins as they bid for a three-in-a-row of senior crowns and their sixth in nine seasons.

Clarecastle meanwhile have been predominantly languishing at the other end of the divide and despite some encouraging signs from their underage wing, they are yet to make any considerable strides to the contrary.

Let’s not forget that it was only two years ago that the ‘Bridge had 18 points to spare in the sides’ first round clash in Cusack Park so even allowing for the expected absence of lynchpins Seadna Morey and Cathal Malone, anything less than another comfortable victory for the holders would be a surprise.

If Clarecastle were at full strength themselves, then there would be an outside of a chance but with Jonathan Clancy retired following a sterling service, county senior Cian Galvin out for the season and a host of other borderline injury doubts, it’s unlikely that the Magpies will risk too much as realistically their championship starts in Round 2.
Verdict: Sixmilebridge

Wolfe Tones v Scariff @ O’Garney Park Sixmilebridge, Saturday 1.30pm
It’s only Round one but effectively every match between Wolfe Tones, Scariff and Clarecastle is a county final as the trio look to sort out the promotion and relegation candidates between them. Not being presumptuous but with Sixmilebridge a clear step above the rest, the champions will be expected to see off all three and therefore this opener is a veritable four pointer in terms of confidence.

The Tones have the edge on senior experience, with the triumvirate of Rory Hayes, Aaron Cunningham and Aron Shanagher pivotal to their success. Indeed, Shanagher almost beat Clarecastle on his own in last year’s first round and having been an ever-present for Clare this year alongside the versatile Hayes, it should add an extra dimension to the Shannon side’s challenge.

The thing is that Scariff are on the crest of a wave themselves after finally returning to senior last year for the first time since 2014 and after adding a Division 2 League crown already this year, their winning habit will be difficult to counteract.

Also in their favour is the fact that they won’t feat either the Tones or Clarecastle so it’s up to the Shannon side to lay down an early marker in order to put some doubts in Scariff’s heads.
Verdict: Wolfe Tones

Group 3:
Crusheen v Cratloe @ Cusack Park, Saturday 4.30pm

To say that Crusheen and Cratloe know each other inside-out is an understatement. Of course, their county final meetings have ended evenly as Crusheen dethroned Cratloe in 2010 only for revenge to be exacted four years later as part of Cratloe’s historic double winning year in hurling and football.

Their last meeting came only two years ago when Cratloe had much the better of matters by 3-24 to 2-12 to qualify for their second successive county final. However, 2014 still remains their last title success in either code as unfortunately Cratloe have been on the end of three consecutive county final defeats in hurling (2018 to Ballyea and 2019 to Sixmilebridge) and football (2020 to Kilmurry Ibrickane).

Undeterred, Cratloe’s enthusiasm hasn’t wilted and after an unbeaten start to their footballing championship challenge, they will hope to maintain that momentum against a more ring-rusty Crusheen on Saturday afternoon.

Under new manager Kevin Sheehan, the retirements of Alan Brigdale and Ciaran O’Doherty through injury are big blows in terms of experience but it has opened the door for a new crop that have been blooded throughout the Clare Cup.

Whether they are ready to take that form into the senior championship is still unknown so in a close tie, perhaps Cratloe’s third week of action could top Crusheen’s freshness.
Verdict: Cratloe

Ballyea v Broadford @ Cusack Park, Sunday 12pm

They came up to the top tier of the Clare Cup together in 2019 after a suitable draw but that is where the similarities ultimately end as while Broadford have incrementally climbed the ranks in recent seasons and made an encouraging start to their return to senior last season, they are still relative newcomers in a group of vastly experience Canon Hamilton winners.

Their victory over neighbours Clonlara in Round 2 in 2020 demonstrated that they are cable of causing an upset but their strength-in-depth is unlikely to extend to beating all three heavyweights.

Add in the fact that a scorned Ballyea will be doubly determined to redress the balance, having been unceremoniously dumped out of the championship by a late sucker-punch against O’Callaghan’s Mills in last year’s semi-final and it is possible the worst possible first opponent for the East Clare side.

Having soared to Canon Hamilton successes in 2016 and ’18, the omens suggested that 2020 should deliver a third senior crown. So while that pattern has been disrupted, don’t rule out a 2021 backlash as with a better squad at their disposal and some fresh faces to boot, it’s difficult to look past a handsome Ballyea win.
Verdict: Ballyea

Group 4:
Éire Óg v Newmarket-on-Fergus @ O’Garney Park Sixmilebridge, Saturday 4.30pm

A game that will reveal a lot about the genuine title ambitions of both as Éire Óg have been getting closer and closer to a breakthrough while Newmarket-on-Fergus have shown early signs of rejuvenation so far, backed by a perfect league record.

The Townies will be favourites to reach a sixth successive quarter-final, having come perilously close to reaching the county final last year. Allied to the current buoyancy surrounding their footballers, there’s a real buzz surrounding Clondroadmore this year that will only be derailed by injuries.

Newmarket meanwhile have been blending youth to their experienced championship winning core of 2012 and there’s an element of a last chance saloon feeling for some of their older members.

That should provide an extra edge but all will depend on Éire Óg’s line-up as a full strength side complete with Shane O’Donnell would be difficult to stop whereas anything less and the Blues will fancy their chances.

Only two points separated the sides when they met in Round 3 two years ago so it should be equally as close this time around.
Verdict: Éire Óg

Clooney-Quin v Feakle @ O’Garney Park Sixmilebridge, Sunday 1.30pm

Much has been said and written about their now infamous 2017 meeting that Clooney-Quin edged in extra-time on their way to the county final while as a result Feakle were nudged down the road to relegation.

Ironically it was Peter Duggan that provided the telling blow that day so his possible return on Sunday would certainly make Feakle sit up and take notice.

The thing is that there is more certainty surrounding Feakle as collectively they are a formidable unit as demonstrated in their recent successful Clare Cup run.

Their understanding and experience does give them an edge over a little more unpredictable Clooney-Quin that could well shoot the lights out but are more likely to be a bit wary after last year’s chastening experience.
Verdict: Feakle

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