Honan pleads for Banner patience

IT was freakish, it was stunning and it was painful. Three years ago, Darach Honan stood in Cusack Park and readied himself for the coronation of Clare as Munster U21 hurling champions for the first time.

Teammate Conor Tierney was nearby, preparing to strike a 20 yard injury-time free that could propel the county into a one-point lead against Tipperary. But then the game swerved off on a dramatic course. Referee Jason O’Mahony spoke to an umpire at the opposite end of the field who informed him that Clare goalkeeper Donal Tuohy had stepped outside of his square for a puckout. Play was called back and Tipperary were awarded a 65, which Pa Bourke converted to claim victory.

At the final whistle chaos ensued yet it is not the hordes of Clare supporters venting their fury at the match officials or the chorus of disapproval that drowned out the post-match trophy presentation which Honan remembers.

“Just after the match, the captain at the time Conor Cooney said to us, that the one thing we had to do was to make sure that this made us stronger. He was moving on from the U21 grade but he spoke to the lads that were still underage. It wasn’t the happiest day of our lives and the nicest of circumstances. But it did make us stronger as a group.”

2009 was about atonement. Honan tapped into a rich vein of goalscoring form and that was a catalyst for Clare’s September success. He fired five goals during their U21 campaign that year, including the crucial brace that enabled them claim Munster honours in Dungarvan in July, and come September Croke Park reeked of sounds and sights from another era as the pitch was engulfed by Banner hurling supporters.

For the county it was a momentous day and that feeling was shared by Honan’s club.

At the final whistle, a third of the Clare team were Clonlara men with Honan joined by Nicky O’Connell, John Conlon and the O’Donovan twins, Cormac and Domhnall.

A sixth club member John Moloney was part of the panel. It was a remarkable achievement. In the Clare hurling hierarchy, Clonlara have traditionally enjoyed a lowly status. A county senior title in 1919 was followed by an exhausting 89-year wait before they collected top honours again.

Three seasons ago Honan was part of a clutch of precocious talents who helped the club capture the Canon Hamilton trophy 12 months after they had won the intermediate title.

“We were always an intermediate club but a good group of us happened to come up together”, says Honan. “A big thing really was the work that was done for us in primary school. The principal at the time PJ Fitzpatrick from Sixmilebridge, who retired this year, invested a lot of time in us as did other teachers like Eddie Horgan. We used to play school leagues every lunch time and that transferred over to the club. We were always hurling and that’s how we progressed.”

The development has continued unabated. O’Connell’s younger brother Cathal, Colm Galvin and Oisín O’Brien represent Clonlara in the Clare minor squad this year. Tomorrow, Honan, O’Connell and Conlon will all start in the Gaelic Grounds for the seniors. Cormac O’Donovan is amongst the substitutes and Domhnall would be on the team but for a back injury. They are representative of a Clare team that is brimming with youth. Nine of tomorrow’s starting 15 are aged 24 or under with a further eight substitutes in that bracket. Honan is still U21 this year as are championship newcomers Patrick O’Connor, Conor McGrath and Cathal McInerney. There are great expectations on them to deliver yet patience is also important.

“You can’t expect one U21 team to come in and have success straight away”, outlines Honan. “There’s still a lot of that 2009 team still U21 this year. So to expect us to come up and win straight away is a bit much. A lot of people realise it’s going to take a bit longer. We should have been winning Division Two this year but these things take time.”

The hurdle tomorrow is All-Ireland champions Tipperary; a tall order yet they will travel with hope. Honan watched last Sunday’s events in Semple Stadium with a keen interest. He is currently on placement with Bord Gáis Energy having just wrapped up his third year studies in Finance in UCC. He spent the last year in Cork sharing a house with Ballygunner duo Philip Mahony and Brian O’Sullivan. Mahony’s younger brother Pauric was crowned man-of-the-match for Waterford last Sunday while O’Sullivan shot 0-2 on his championship debut. Honan was familiar with Limerick’s stars as well having gone to school in Árd Scoil Rís with goalscoring hero Kevin Downes. Youth was no obstacle to them. The challenge now is to replicate that.

Tipp’s hard-earned experience trumps Banner youth

Match preview: Diarmuid O’Flynn

ALL the aces in this game appear to be held by Tipperary. All-Ireland champions, multiple All Stars in goal (Brendan Cummins has five on his own), in defence and in attack, a championship win already this season. Having been put to the test against Cork and surviving handsomely, they head for Limerick as the hottest of favourites.

Clare? Everyone will point to the fact that two years ago they ran more or less this same Tipperary team to two points in this equivalent game and were unlucky not to have won. But much water has passed under the proverbial bridge since. In the intervening period Clare have languished in Division Two of the league, beaten both years in the play-off final, first by Wexford (2010, having topped the table) and then several weeks ago by Limerick.

They will have been heartened in the meantime by the display of Donal O’Grady’s men against Waterford last weekend in the first Munster semi-final, but really, how much of a barometer is that?

Limerick beat Clare fairly comfortably on the two occasions in which they met this year, and they stepped up considerably on those displays in that game against Waterford last Sunday.

Are Clare capable of doing the same? There are some fantastic young players coming through in Clare and the team picked by Ger O’Loughlin and his selectors is loaded with them. And that’s the problem — so talented, but so young.

Phillip Brennan has regained his place in goal, and this — I believe — is a good move for Clare. Fronting him, a youngster, Conor ‘Rocky’ Cooney, but don’t be fooled, this guy has the attitude of the great Brian Lohan (Google Cooney & O’Grady from this year’s league final, see what I mean!) while another youngster Cian Dillon is also making a big impression. Thus it continues down along the field — O’Connor and McInerney in the half-back line, O’Connell in midfield, Conlan and another McInerney in the half-forward line with Honan and McGrath up front. Huge talents, massive potential, but that’s the problem — is this a year too soon for them all?

Contrast that with the experience on the Tipperary side with experience honed in the white heat of All-Ireland finals. Clare will give it a lash, and as they head into what is a huge challenge for them this team needs and deserves support from the Clare public in the Gaelic Grounds.

Tipperary — well, if they find themselves still in a game with 10 minutes or so to go, the pressure will really ratchet up. Overall, however, we can see only one winner here.

Verdict: Tipperary.

Picture: RAISING THE BANNER: Darach Honan says despite their All Ireland U21 win, “There’s still a lot of that 2009 team still U21 this year. So to expect us to come up and win straight away is a bit much. Picture: Sportsfile

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