Three rounds in and Clare are the first top-flight hurling side to secure their place in the league quarter-finals. Reidy and his Banner teammates will leave the relegation scrap to everyone else.
Ahead of this year’s condensed hurling league, the chief concern was this would be a spring packed full of shadow boxing. After all, the reward for the finalists is eight games in nine weeks, followed in early summer by four games in five weeks. Ensuring survival in Division 1A would demand counties target certain fixtures, yes, but it’d be foolish for any team to put their foot to the floor in February and expect to keep it there until May, June and beyond.
“[The changed structures] will test us all, even on the sideline, in terms of how we manage our affairs and how we get through it and use our players,” said Tipperary manager Michael Ryan ahead of the opening round.
In the same interview, mind, Ryan did stress every league game would be “real”, every league game would “matter”.
Clare, more so than any other team in Division 1A, are hurling every game as if it matters. Nobody can accuse joint-managers Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor of shadow boxing. What we’ve seen from the Banner has most definitely been real. The reason for that appears to stem from management’s disappointment at spending much of last spring playing catch-up.
Three rounds in and for the first time since 1997, Clare have taken down the traditional big three of Tipperary, Kilkenny and Cork. Sunday’s comfortable win ended a five-game losing streak to Cork and was their first competitive victory over the Rebel county since the special Saturday night back in September 2013. Sunday’s result also meant a first run of three successive wins in two years.
Their defence, which went unchanged for the opening two league wins, showed one switch in personnel for the visit of John Meyler’s Cork. Out went David Fitzgerald and in came Michael O’Malley for his first competitive start. The Kilmaley half-back departed Cusack Park that evening with the man of the match gong thrown in the gear bag.
“We are all driving each other on in trying to get starting places. That really showed out there,” remarked O’Malley.
“The club, Kilmaley, got to the Munster intermediate final before Christmas and my hurling was up to scratch because of that. Lads, maybe, weren’t playing as many competitive games as I and Conor Cleary were. We brought that into the Clare set-up and kept trying to drive it on.
“If you get a chance, you have to take it. I’m happy enough to hopefully think the lads will consider me for the next day.”
Similar to their second-half performance against Kilkenny at Nowlan Park a fortnight ago, one of the few negatives from Sunday was the manner in which they allowed a substantial lead be severely eroded.
Mind you, O’Malley didn’t think much of it.
“We got our purple patch right through the first half. For the first 10 or 15 minutes of the second half, Cork got the upperhand, then we calmed it down. The lads finished it out really well.”
With regard to their forward division, there’s been something of a return to basics. Three men once again operate in the full-forward line. The short-passing, along with the sweeper, has been abandoned. The size and stature of Peter Duggan and Niall Deasy means John Conlon is no longer the lone soldier in attack.
Yes, the calendar may still read February, but there’s an uninhibited fluency and a spirit to their play that was noticeably absent in years previous. No better advertisement in that regard than David Reidy. He was practically bouncing in Ennis, throwing over three points from play and picking out Conor McGrath for what would have been a well-worked goal had the latter’s shot not been blocked.
“Winning is a habit. We’ll build momentum as much as we can,” said Reidy afterwards.
And with the pressure off and their place in the knockout stages secure, they can now afford to take the foot off the pedal and engage in a little shadow boxing of their own, should they wish, when visiting Davy below in Wexford on Sunday.