I got a call from my old buddy, Niall Gilligan, on Tuesday morning. We were chatting about meeting Fr Harry Bohan for a quiet drink at some stage.
Fr Harry is over 80 now. He wouldn’t be drinking much, maybe a glass of Guinness, but he’d luxuriate in the craic between the three of us.
Especially with Gilly rolling classic after classic off his tongue, his wit as sharp as a Mach 3 razor.
Before we got into making any arrangements, Gilly wanted to pull me up on my, apparent, new pseudo-role as communications, marketing and propaganda manager for hurling, and particularly, the Munster Championship.
“I’m watching you there on the telly, and reading you in the Examiner speaking about how great this championship is,” says the ‘Bridge Boy in his south Clare drawl. “Well I’ll tell you one thing, you’ve a good bit to go before you’d convince Deirdre (Gilligan) it’s a great championship. I’m going off on the train again to Thurles on Sunday with the boys. I was in Cork, the (Cusack) Park, and I was in Limerick last Sunday. And Deirdre at home with the children.”
Deirdre is probably thinking like a lot of hurling wives (or widows!) and partners over the last six weeks: “God, will this thing ever be over?”
And the rest of us are thinking the complete opposite: “What will we do when this magic ends?”
And yet there is already some form of anxiety and stress attached to those deep emotions we’re already feeling. Most of us in Clare are of a similar mindset to every other hurling supporter in Munster because the journeys are either going to end, or continue, for some of us over the next eight days. And when it does end for two of those counties, what has felt like a feast will be transformed into a long summer wake.
Even with one round to go for four teams, the stakes are already gone through the roof. And in Thurles tomorrow, it’s effectively knockout stuff for both teams. Tipperary are gone if they lose. Clare can still end up on four points if they beat Limerick but, even if they did, they’d more than likely perish on the head-to-head eliminator if two teams end up on four points.
I was also talking to another Clare team-mate, Brian Quinn, this week. Quinno is a gas man for the craic too but the chat leant more towards business than pleasure, and tomorrow’s game.
“We’ll see now have they the killer instinct,” Quinno said. “This is not only a chance for Clare to beat Tipp and put them out of the championship; it’s an opportunity to make a statement that this summer is finally going to be different in Clare after four years of serial championship disappointment.”
Tipperary are stumbling but they’re hanging on. This is their fourth successive game in 21 days. Clare have had two weeks off. It’s never easy to beat Tipperary, especially in Thurles, but these Clare players should demand absolutely nothing else of themselves only a win.
Because, whatever about the permutations a defeat would bring, another loss would trigger even more soul-searching. And more questions about the golden generation.
Tipperary are after showing unbelievable heart and character over the last two weeks but how much more energy can they summon at this stage? What else can Michael Ryan say to the players? How fresh can his message be at this stage?
When we played Tipperary in the 1999 Munster semi-final replay, we were in a somewhat similar position. Tipp should have buried us in the drawn game. We looked spent. Guys were carrying injuries. Tipp were young and fresh and they came to Cork to finish that Clare team.
Before we went out onto the pitch, we all heard Nicky English’s famous line in the other dressing room in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. “What do you do with wounded animals?’ Nicky asked the Tipp players. “KILL,” the players shouted.
Ger Loughnane just looked at us. He didn’t have to say anything.
We produced probably our greatest performance under Loughnane.
Clare should be looking to finish off Tipp now. Mick will know that’s what Clare are coming to do but will he be able to stir Tipp into the frenzy Loughnane had us in? The environment is different too. That replay in 1999 was just our second game of the championship. It may have been our greatest performance but we never repeated it.
Tipp still have lethal forwards. They can be irresistible when they put it together, as they did for ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer’s goal chance last week, which Stephen O’Keeffe brilliantly saved. They are at home but this bunch of Clare players always loved Thurles as underage players. It suits the pace and energy in the team but it should suit them even more considering the lack of pace in the Tipp defence at the moment.
More than anything though, this is crossroads time for Clare. Big time. I’m sure Gerry O’Connor, Donal Moloney, Patrick O’Connor, John Conlon and the main players are asking big questions of themselves all week. “Where are we? What are we? What are we about? What’s in our stomachs?”
If I was involved, I’d be getting an experienced guy like Cian Dillon to be doing a lot of the talking this week. I’d want him reminding lads how much of a defining day this is for Clare. This is depths of the soul stuff for this group because they have to firmly quiet the mumblings that 2013 was just a streaky All-Ireland. And I think Clare will stand up to the challenge and win.
Limerick were the big story last weekend but you could also reason that Waterford were the team of the weekend, given how much there was to admire about their performance, especially in the circumstances. Some of Waterford’s forward play was scintillating. Some of their peripheral players, especially DJ Foran, really stepped up.
That will have given a massive lift to those guys but the whole team will take huge confidence from how Waterford really attacked the game.
Kevin Moran will be back. Austin Gleeson and Pauric Mahony have more game-time under their belts. Limerick are being talked up but I don’t think this game is as clear-cut as many believe it to be.
This is Waterford’s third game in 14 days but this is a big ask for Limerick after the depths they went to last Saturday, and the reserves of energy they must have used up, not to mention the mental fatigue involved.
Unlike Tipp, they didn’t have to rely on a dodgy umpiring decision to eke out a draw.
They absolutely emptied themselves but, given the jingoistic reaction afterwards, this is definitely the biggest test of the Kiely revolution.
You’d also wonder if some form of complacency could creep into the Limerick players’ minds? Home advantage should be crucial, though, and Limerick might just shade it.
This evening’s game in Wexford Park is a Leinster semi-final. That in itself underlines the magnitude of the match but this is also a real test of both teams to find out where they really are now after both were taken to school by Galway in the last two weeks.
So many big players underperformed in those games.
Maybe they weren’t let perform by Galway but Wexford were much more of a let-down considering they were at home, while Kilkenny had to travel to Salthill. Kilkenny have had a two-week break now. They are at home. Losing to Wexford in Nowlan Park is doomsday scenario stuff for the locals but I think there might be a bounce in Wexford.
I’m sure their big men like Lee Chin, Diarmuid O’Keeffe, and Conor McDonald have a lot of soul-searching done this week. I also feel that Wexford can offer a little more up front than Kilkenny.
Galway showed that if you can stop TJ Reid, there aren’t many more threats outside of Walter Walsh. It’s a leap of faith backing against Kilkenny in Nowlan Park but I think Wexford can edge it.
There has been some talk this week that whoever loses tonight will be in a better position going forward than the winner, who will face Galway again in the Leinster final. I struggle to understand that theory. Do Brian Cody and Davy Fitz want to lose to each other? Do they not want to reach a Leinster final?
Apart from those obvious answers though, I think the third-placed team in Munster will be much better set up to have a cut at the quarter-finals than the third-placed team in Leinster.
Whoever loses tonight won’t play again for four weeks, where they will meet one of the Joe McDonagh Cup teams, whereas the winner will have the momentum and excitement of a Leinster final to look forward to. And the challenge of having another right cut at Galway.
The All-Ireland champions have a dead-rubber this evening against Dublin, who in so many ways have been the silent success story of this summer, particularly when you look at how they finished last year’s championship, and how much they struggled this spring. They have been excellent in their three games, and Dublin can take huge pride and belief going forward.
It’s just a pity that Dublin’s season ends this evening so early in June. It’s going to end for more teams either this weekend, or next weekend.
I’m sure there be plenty of women and men in those counties silently bursting with delight that it’s over. And others heartbroken, even if some will comfort themselves with the poor substitute of the World Cup.
That will drive some completely mad. At least they might know the names of some of the local hurlers. But when they walk into the room and hear us rabbiting on about some lad from Belgium or Brazil, there’ll be war.
Gilly, I told you it was a mistake reopening the train station in Sixmilebridge.
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