Of all the big stories that have emerged from the new look Munster championship in recent weeks, Clare haven’t been one of them.
Waterford’s misfortune, Tipperary’s split personality, the ‘phantom’ goal, Limerick’s intoxicating brand of hungry hurling; those are the storylines that have captured our imaginations.
Clare, meanwhile, remain out there in the ether, nobody too sure exactly what we should be expecting of them.
They were pipped by Cork in their opening game, beat a depleted Waterford and then had a weekend off, though this Sunday, against Tipperary in Thurles, there will be nowhere to hide.
And that’s just how John Conlon, the PwC GAA/GPA Hurler of the Month for May, likes it with a quiet confidence evident in the Clonlara man.
“I think we’ve seen glimpses of what we can do against Cork and Waterford,” said the experienced forward. “This is a massive game for us this weekend, we know that as a group of players, everyone in the county knows it.
“We’re just hoping a massive crowd comes down and really drives us on and it is that 16th man that we need and hopefully, that we can get back to that level. It’s there within us and everyone seems to be playing well and we seem to be playing a nice brand and style.”
The reason that nobody is too sure what to expect from Clare is that they’ve spent five years teasing us with their potential.
Ultimately, they haven’t come close to repeating their All-Ireland success of 2013 when they stormed the Championship with a young team. They haven’t even played at Croke Park since then.
Injuries, retirements, lack of form and issues with former boss Davy Fitzgerald that resulted in his departure have all mitigated against them. Time, of course, continues to tick on.
“If I knew why (Clare have underperformed) it would be easily addressed but it’s not been for the want of trying, I can tell you that,” said Conlon.
“Every October and November we’ve come in and trained just as hard as the next county. It’s just hard trying to get it all to click at the right time. You see how that happened for Galway last year and they’re at it again this year, it’s just trying to carry that on through the period of May, June and July and then into August.
“Just trying to keep lads motivated and trying to keep 32 lads on the panel happy is difficult enough. If anyone then wavers, it does bring down the mood of the camp, the mood of the team.
Conlon, an elder statesmen in the team at 29, knows that fine margins separate the best hurling counties.
“Wexford brought us to extra-time below in Thurles in 2013 and then all of a sudden, we just got on a run,” he recalled. “We beat Galway and Limerick and we just got going. It’s like any team, even look at Liverpool this year in the Champions League, they got on such a run that you thought they wouldn’t have been beaten in the final.
“I remember saying to Colm Galvin after we beat Laois in the qualifiers in 2013, ‘There are only four or five games until the All-Ireland now’. And he looked at me, saying, ‘Are you for real? Don’t be dreaming’. We just got on a roll. And I remember walking down the Hogan Stand after we lifted the cup, he turned around to me and I said it back to him. He just started laughing.
“Even last year, Tipp could easily have beaten Galway in the semi-final and nobody would be talking about the Galway team that won the All-Ireland. It would be, ‘Can they break that hoodoo?’ again.”
With ties against Tipp and Limerick left to play, Clare know their destiny remains in their hands; two wins will secure them a Munster final place.
Getting there is a huge ambition after 20 years without a Munster title.
“Every year we go out as a group and set the target of winning the Munster championship and the All-Ireland, that’s no different this year,” said Conlon. “We know that we probably haven’t performed to the level that we want to over the last number of years.”
As for Tipp, Conlon is expecting the side that reeled in Waterford last weekend to turn up in Thurles, not the one that struggled in the first half.
“I was actually at that game,” said Conlon who went with his dad. “Look, Tipp obviously have that never-say-die attitude and they came back again, and just showed the talent and the will to win that they’ve always had. They didn’t give up and didn’t give in when a lot of other teams would have.”
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