Emerging Banner face the toughest test of all

THERE have been three outstanding hurling games this year.

The senior All-Ireland final, obviously enough, the league final and the other great game was the All-Ireland U21 semi-final between Galway and Clare. This game had everything: intensity, fantastic scores, an outstanding game that Clare, maybe with a bit of good fortune, won after extra-time. I’d nearly put this game down as the top of the three games.

I’ll start with Clare. So far they’ve done really well for a team that won nothing at minor level. The management team have also done brilliantly. John Minogue and Cyril Lyons went about their business the right way. After the very controversial defeat of last year, they didn’t make a song and a dance but kept quiet about it. They have done tremendous work with the team, very well coached through the Munster campaign and again for the semi-final but the real test comes now in Croke Park tomorrow.

A lot of work done but you’re really into the lion’s den when you’re taking on any Kilkenny team in Croke Park. It’s a daunting task. At the time of writing the Clare team was not announced but it’s probable that Nicky O’Connell, Domhnall O’Donovan and Ciaran O’Doherty will be important figures in defence and that Cian Dillon who hurled well against Galway will be at full-back. Eamonn Glyn will also feature.

Clare will certainly need all of these fellas playing well on Sunday. The defence is going to be under tremendous pressure and will need cover from the midfielders, who will probably be Cathal Chaplin and Enda Barrett.

The one thing about this Clare team is that unlike some previous Clare teams, they seem to have a few top forwards. John Conlon, Cormac O’Donovan, Colin Ryan and above all, Darach Honan. This guy is a tremendous prospect, irrespective of how he gets on tomorrow. He has the three qualities you look for in any good forward – great pace, the self belief to go for goals and great intelligence. He can get spectacular goals but he can also make goals and has great vision. The big question is will he play on Sunday, as he has been injured recently?

I would class him as the new Ray Cummins. He’s about 6’ 5’’ and a very rangy player. The only thing is the injury and you have to remember that he has two more years left at U21 level.

With such a talent around the place though, you need good men with it. And John Conlon is a good player – a great forager who can win the ball and is a really good worker.

Colin Ryan, who has senior experience, also works very hard.

The one thing about the semi-final was the massive score Clare got – 3–23. Now I don’t think they will get anywhere near that on Sunday but more importantly if they concede anything like 5-15 they are in big trouble.

It was a monkey off Clare’s back to come out of Munster after the previously losing 13 finals and after what happened last year there’s no doubt both players and management were under enormous pressure in the Munster campaign. However, they’re still very inexperienced coming into Croke Park. Saying all that, they showed wonderful spirit, wonderful Clare spirit so far this year, something we haven’t seen from a Clare team for a long time.

And because of that, the Clare public have responded well to this team. They have come through the harder route, especially the harder semi-final. So we can say that they are battle hardened now. But they have to go and believe they can do it and they have to go and grab it.

On to Kilkenny, the one thing I’ve noticed about this team is that even thought they won the All-Ireland minor title last year, there is only one of those players, Conor Fogarty, able to make this U21 team. That just shows the depth of talent in Kilkenny. They have a fantastic half-backline.

Though it hadn’t been announced at the time of going to press, we can expect David Langton, Lester Ryan and Martin Walsh, the brother of Tommy and we all know what a Walsh can do at wing back!

Kilkenny manager Michael Walsh has done a great job with them this year. They have a good young player at midfield in Mark Kelly and in the forwards you have players like Mark Bergin, Richie Hogan, John Mulhall, Colin Fennelly and JJ Farrell.

There’s a slight doubt about Richie Hogan’s fitness but knowing Richie he will want to play in this final. He might have been a bit disappointed with the way the senior final went last Sunday though he got two good points.

Another thing about this Kilkenny forward line is that they have massive pace and could cause massive problems for the Clare defence. This is where the game will be won or lost.

Look, with Kilkenny, they hurl that bit smarter than everybody else and they always seem to be a step ahead of you. Clare must defend as a unit, close them down all the time. Close out the spaces, even though Croke Park has lots of open spaces. That is what makes the job so hard. Clare will have worked hard in training on closing forwards down but the question is are they good enough?

This is a big test for Clare but the bigger the test, the bigger the player.

This team has gone through so much last year and this year that it has really unified the team and has even unified the county.

Clare need this a thousand fold more than Kilkenny. But Kilkenny are not going to hand you anything. They don’t operate like that. There’s a greediness about Kilkenny which is a good thing in a hurling team. I met a Kilkenny man this week and he said to me after the senior final: “We have the main one now.”

And I said to him: “Ye want every one. Ye have the main one all right until next Sunday!”

It’s different when your own county is involved and without calling it I’ll say this – my head says Kilkenny but my heart says Clare.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2022

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