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*Rory Hayes. Photograph: Burren Eye Photography

The fact that this is Rory Hayes’ first taste of provincial round-robin action only adds to the Wolfe Tones’ clubman’s anticipation of Sunday’s lift-off in Thurles.

Part of the panel in a memorable 2018 Munster campaign that incidentally included a first championship victory over Tipperary on away soil in 90 years, Hayes finally made his senior debut in the subsequent All-Ireland Quarter-Final against Wexford and also featured from the bench against Galway in the semi-final replay.

However, a combination of injuries, travels and then COVID conspired to ensure that the versatile defender has been limited to knock-out fare since. Not that he’s complaining as the past two seasons under fellow Shannon native Brian Lohan have seen him been an ever-present for the Banner, with his swashbuckling style at corner-back earning him back-to-back All-Star nominations to boot.

“When you have a man over the team like Brian Lohan and what he has done for Clare hurling in his playing career, he still inspires and squeezes every ounce out of you and in turn you’re going to play for him and the jersey. Looking back on the results last year, I feel that we’ve just been a little unlucky. I mean there was only a puck of the ball between ourselves and Cork last year and were unlucky with some decisions against Tipp previously. In 2020, we were a team largely in transition under a new management and a COVID-stricken championship so it was a little weird going down to Páirc Uí Chaoimh playing championship in front of no fans and ultimately we just didn’t perform in the first half [against Waterford]. So I feel Brian does get the best out of us, I just think we’ve been unlucky in games really.”

A new year brings new cheer for Hayes and Co. as Clare finally get back to the round-robin format. “Every player is delighted that the round robin is back but it obviously makes the championship more difficult too. Munster is arguably the toughest of the two provincial championships as there are some serious teams there and serious opposition so it’s going to be a tough five weeks and hopefully more for us.

“As a player, you couldn’t but be looking forward to something like this as this is where you really test yourselves as individuals and as a team. So while there are some big challenges ahead and we seem to be the underdogs for all our games really, that’s something that we’re relishing as well”.

What makes this format extra special for Hayes is the return of the capacity crowds especially on home soil just as it was when he started first in 2018.

“We’re anticipating two full houses in Cusack Park in a few weeks time and we’re traveling to Thurles for the next two Sundays so as a player, these are the things you look forward to and feed off as well. There will be nerves of course but they’re good nerves. I mean you have to feed off the atmosphere and energy of the crowd so we’re hoping that the Clare support come out with their colours and numbers and drive us on.

“Especially because we’re starting against Tipperary in their own home patch, we’ll need as strong a support as possible to be there to hopefully be our 16th man just as they always are”.

Clare will need every extra impetus after an alarming successions of injures that saw them not even able to field a full 26 man panel for the early stages of the National League.

“The huge amount of injuries this year have given lads the chance to put their hands up because at times, there were so many players out that we needed everyone on the panel to step up. We’ve never had a full strength team or panel on the field this year but that’s part and parcel of the game, there’s nothing that Brian or anyone can do about it and we just have to get on with it.Training is going well, we’ve a few lads back and things are starting to come together going into Sunday so hopefully we can hit the ground running now and implement our gameplan on the opposition and drive it on.

“The good thing is that we’ve at least four championship games now and I think as the championship goes on, we’re only going to get better. By the time, Limerick and Waterford come to Ennis, we could have 90% of our panel back fully fit so it’s about getting results early and keeping ourselves in contention by then”.

With both Clare and Tipperary installed as favourites to miss out on the top three in Munster, Hayes for one wasn’t surprised to see the Premier County’s backlash last Sunday against Waterford.

“Tipp put a stop to any criticism that they had before they even pucked a ball in the championship. There were being written off against Waterford so I think that drove them on going into the game just to show that they were no pushovers.

“Regardless of how they played on Sunday though, any day you play Tipp in Thurles, you know it’s not going to be easy. The last time we played Tipp in Thurles was in 2018 and we managed to get a win then but this time they’re going to be a different animal. They’ve had a game under their belts and will be looking to impress on their own home patch. So it’s going to be difficult for us to get a result especially after Tipp didn’t get the result against Waterford that their performance maybe deserved, they’re going to be doubly determined this Sunday”.

While Clare missed out on the first weekend, it has only whetted the appetites for Hayes and Co. to finally get their championship challenge underway this Sunday.

“The intensity in both games on Sunday were massive. They were probably a step ahead of the Leinster Championship games so the other four teams have all had a taste for it now. Looking at the weekend’s opening matches, we’re just rearing for road and I just can’t wait to get going now.”

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