Super fit, motivated Clare will test Cats

They’re a promising young team, they’re on an upward curve, they have their best days ahead of them, they’re managed by a man who saw it all and did it all during his own playing days and tomorrow in Thurles they face a team who’ve seen it all and done it all over the past couple of seasons.

Yes, yes – two teams will be seen at Semple Stadium who fit that description, obviously. But it’s not Cork we’re talking about here. It’s Clare. And it’s not JBM, it’s Davy Fitz. Don’t be blinded by the scheduling. The more interesting and attractive game on the bill is not the main event but the curtain-raiser. Cork and Tipperary, with a prospective Munster semi-final collision in the back of their minds, will throw shapes around one another to whatever extent they see fit. It may be a good contest. It may not.

Clare, on the other hand, won’t be throwing shapes against Kilkenny. They’ll be throwing the kitchen sink at them.

Promotion achieved, this is the first really big test for New Clare, as one might call them. A taste of what we can expect from them in the coming seasons was hinted at last summer when the county minor team fielded Clonlara’s Cathal O’Connell at centre-forward. Now O’Connell wasn’t a big strong mullicker, as minor centre-forwards often are. He was small and neat and brimming with skill, which made the decision to give him the number 11 jersey a brave and imaginative one on the part of the Clare minor management.

It may well serve a road map. Old Clare went out to close opponents down and cut off their air supply, “death by asphyxiation” being the coroner’s verdict on most of their victims during the Loughnane. New Clare will be going out to open opponents up and hurl them out of it. How the county didn’t win one of the last two All-Ireland minor titles is a small mystery. But they didn’t fail through lack of hurling ability and it was better for them to fail that way than to succeed with a bunch of athletes who’d never be heard of again, as was the case with the 1997 minors.

Davy Fitz has two discrete groups of talented youngsters – those recent minors and the U21 heroes of 2009 – to work with. Few other inter-county bosses can boast as much. Equally encouragingly, he’s come home a better, wiser manager than he was a few years ago. Waterford did that for him.

In view of recent events on Suirside, incidentally, he’s entitled to considerable credit for how well he managed to keep everyone inside the tent. It couldn’t have been easy for him. The older Waterford lads may not have loved him, and they certainly took time to get used to him, but in the end they sucked it up and got on with it. That says something about Fitzgerald’s ability to get players to buy into a common vision. He’ll also have learned not to pay too much attention to what the media say. They’ll say it anyway, so why worry? This is not one of those controllables a manager can control. Ergo he shouldn’t try. Nor has he lost that demonic enthusiasm of his, as was evident on the sideline against Limerick a couple of weeks ago. Let’s face it, it has to take quite something for John Allen, the most chilled out dude in the world, to get worked up. And yes, it was all great craic to watch. And no, no harm was done. Just as long as Davy doesn’t make such sideshows a habit. In the long run that would be self-defeating.

Can his boys put it up to Kilkenny tomorrow? This observer is convinced they can. For all that they finished top of Division 1A, the All-Ireland champions struggled against teams who were prepared to have a cut at them. Tipp weren’t, Waterford couldn’t and Galway were a shambles. But Dublin gave Kilkenny the respect of giving them no respect, scored six goals and should have won. Cork likewise took them on and won going away. So what have Clare to be afraid of? For the favourites it’s a league semi-final and just another game. For the underdogs it is – to all intents and purposes — a league final and a really big game. There is no downside for them. They can have a cut.

What’s more, Semple Stadium will suit them. A whizzing sliotar, wide spaces, ample room to exhibit their pace. They won’t stand over the ball or put it in the air too much or take it into contact (or if they do they’ll be beaten out the gate). Instead they’ll move it quickly and keep it wide, and the dimensions of Tom Semple’s field will be their friend in that regard.

This is not a day for Davy to be reprising the Brick Walsh strategy, with the midfielders supplementing their half-backs and the half-forwards dropping back on top of the midfielders. It’s a day for him to go for it.

Clare will be insanely fit. They’ll run all afternoon. The manager will – does this really need to be said? — have them motivated up to the eyeballs. And the last thing Kilkenny want at the moment is to have to chase a bunch of young lads around the place in the month of April. Grind them down in Croke Park in August, yes. Absolutely. But do you really think Noel Hickey hasn’t better things to be doing at this hour of his life than spending his Sunday running after some adolescent he’s never heard of? Clare don’t have to win. It’ll be both a surprise and a disappointment if they don’t give Kilkenny plenty of it, though. The bookies are giving them a seven-point start. To these eyes that looks generous.

Two predictions. Clare to lead at half-time and Clare to beat the seven-point handicap. Davy Fitz’s second coming as an intercounty manager begins in earnest tomorrow. Buckle up. It could be quite a ride.

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