Cleary keeps the faith as Offaly gather momentum

All-Ireland SHC Qualifier (R3)
Tipperary v Offaly, Tomorrow 3.30pm (Portlaoise)

THERE are more storied rivalries in hurling but a spice still remains to hurling clashes between Offaly and Tipperary. In that border region that where South Offaly adjoins with North Tipperary, the pairing still commands huge interest.

Traditionally it has been a lopsided fixture with Tipperary in total control and Offaly still vigorously chasing their first taste of a championship success over the Premier County. Tomorrow’s All-Ireland qualifier in Portlaoise represents another opportunity and full-back Paul Cleary is determined to exploit it. Geographically the Birr man is perfectly positioned to appreciate the significance of the tie and also has the burning memories of the 2007 qualifier tie in Semple Stadium to drive him on, as Offaly squandered a glorious chance for victory that day.

“Of course it is a big thing for South Offaly people. An awful lot of the clubs would border Tipperary and there’d be a fierce rivalry there.

“We went down to Thurles a couple of years ago and were very close to beating them. It would be great to beat them, any time you can make a bit of history like that is great. But a bigger incentive would be to get to an All-Ireland quarter-final. It’d be a huge step for us to get to an All-Ireland quarter-final and that’s what we’d be focusing on.”

Offaly are not entering this game in fear of facing a team that have came closer than anyone last September to derailing Kilkenny’s relentless pursuit of hurling perfection. The manner of their displays in those two stirring Leinster championship clashes against Galway have revitalised this Offaly team. Cleary can see the confidence soar amongst his teammates in their ability to perform.

“The Galway games gave us great encouragement and we won’t be fearing Tipperary. You have to measure yourself against the Tipperarys, the Kilkennys and these teams. It’s something as a player you look forward to. We’ll be underdogs which will probably suit us. We’re still a work in progress and it’ll bring us on again. There’d have to be a huge rise in self belief after Galway. They were regarded as one of the top teams in the country and we really should have beaten them, especially the second day.”

Last weekend against Limerick was a trickier assignment for Offaly to handle. They were the heaviest of favourites against a band of rookies and that pressure, combined with the greasy conditions, hindered Offaly’s play.

“I wouldn’t say it was difficult to get up for it but the conditions led to it a lot,” says Cleary.

“It was never going to be pretty. It was a hard day to hurl. The ball was slipping all over the place. Both teams, in fairness to them, dealt with it but it was never going to be free-flowing hurling in that weather.

“We thought we were going alright without setting the world on fire and suddenly there was only two or three points in it when they got the goal. Any crowd that was out there for them rose.

“But it was satisfying that we went up and got three points straight away to kind of nullify it. It was a good answer. I think what the two Galway games have done is sharpen our fitness. After them you have to look at yourself and say maybe we’re not as far away as people make us out to be.”


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