Last week was such a hectic and busy week in our pub that I was nearly hanging for the break and the change of scenery in Ennis yesterday, even if I knew full well beforehand that the action wasn’t going to be anywhere near as full-blooded and exciting as what I witnessed in Cheltenham.
It wasn’t. When I was strolling out of Cusack Park afterwards, this Cork fella sidled up beside me. “Great game for so little at stake Anthony, boy,” he said.
“Did you think so?” I responded. “It was all too handy for me. A puck for you. A puck for me. That won’t work in the championship.”
It was like a glorified challenge game. Anyone who read anything into that match is only codding themselves, but we’re also fully aware that what we all saw yesterday won’t make one jot of difference when Tipperary arrive in Ennis in five weeks, and Waterford show up in Páirc Ui Chaoimh for Cork’s first championship match at the end of April.
Cork have done what they needed to under a new manager. Clare are now in Year 4 under Brian Lohan. They are fully comfortable in their skin under Lohan but if Clare lose that first match to Tipperary the critics will be out in full force to say that Clare have showed very little in this league. Clare did annihilate Wexford but Wexford were so poor that afternoon that you still couldn’t be fully sure what Clare got out of the match.
Outside of Adam Hogan showing the class he displayed for St Joseph’s Tulla in last year’s Harty Cup win, and David Reidy’s return to form, Clare have found out very little about themselves during this campaign.
Clare had a very poor league last year too before having an excellent championship but I still felt they showed far more hints of positivity last spring than what we have seen to date.
I love a game of poker. I know full well that showing your hand is definitely a huge mistake, but are Clare holding something back? If they are, I’m not sure what it is.
We’re not used to seeing Tony Kelly midfield, where he has been for the last two games. We’re also not used to seeing Tony not shoot. Is Tony going to be midfield for the championship? I doubt it.
Cathal Malone has become one of my favourite Clare players in recent years but he has been struggling to rediscover the form of last year. So has Diarmuid Ryan. Both players are clearly in need of a spark but both lads will also be fully aware of what they need to do to generate it.
The other unknown is around Shane O’Donnell, who didn’t appear this spring. I never really liked the league but I still always preferred to have some spring game-time under my belt as preparation for the championship.
After suffering such a serious concussion in 2021 though, Shane clearly knows what works best for him around how to prepare for the summer, which may involve as little contact and competitive action as possible early in the year. It certainly did him no harm last year when he went on to win his first All-Star.
Such a wet and miserable day in Ennis may have contributed to my perception of the match but it was far too loose and open for my liking. Cork will give you bags of it when you play it on those terms but one of the biggest criticisms I have had of Clare in this league is how often their half-backs and midfielders have allowed their opponents get a handy puckout. Whatever about it being a fixture with nothing on the line, some of that casualness from Clare here just wasn’t acceptable.
The biggest positive for Clare was the continuing brilliant form of Conor Cleary at full-back along with getting another full game into John Conlon at centre-back.
I’m sure Clare will have a couple of challenge games lined up against Leinster teams in the next five weeks. Challenge games are never an ideal gauge but, in my opinion, Clare need them to iron out a few creases.
Cork, on the other hand, have a league semi-final against Kilkenny to look forward to and Pat Ryan will have been happy heading back down the road yesterday evening. Some of the younger players were impressive again, especially Pádraig Power, but a lot of that positivity will have been dampened down by the injuries to Seamus Harnedy and Deccie Dalton.
Harnedy in particular is a big concern because he was going so well, back to the Seamie of old, forceful and accurate and full of menace. A hamstring injury is never ideal but especially not on the eve of championship. Dalton also looked to have tweaked a hamstring and, while you couldn’t say that Deccie is a definite starter, Ryan has invested a lot in him.
The one thing that Ryan probably realised most after yesterday though, is that Eoin Downey and Ciarán Joyce are his number 3 and number 6 for the championship.
Rob Downey and Daire O’Leary may have been in the frame, especially when Eoin Downey is still so young and inexperienced, but Rob Downey and O’Leary will have to produce a lot more in the remainder of the league if they are to force their way into Ryan’s plans for the summer.
Then again, how can anyone make a full judgement on what they saw yesterday? You couldn’t. That Cork supporter I met afterwards is entitled to see the positivity in his side’s progression to the league semi-finals. Yet he will also surely appreciate that Cork were flying high too last spring before crashing and burning in their first two championship games.
That’s the time to get it right. Not in mid March.