When it comes to the Munster championship, the Clare hurling panel can be divided into three groups; those who have won a provincial championship game, those who haven’t, and Pat Donnellan.
The latter stands as the sole member of the current set-up to have played on Munster final afternoon and rather shockingly, he is the sole member of Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor’s panel to have more than one provincial championship victory under his belt.
That Munster final was way back in 2008 and in the intervening nine years, Clare have played nine games in the Munster SHC. All but one ended in defeat. The win, which stands in dreadful isolation, was a quarter-final triumph in 2013. And of the 31 players to see game-time during this year’s league, only 11 featured four years ago at Semple Stadium as Davy Fitzgerald’s charges advanced at Waterford’s expense.
That’s two-thirds of a panel never to have won a provincial championship game.
Captain Pat O’Connor was left-half back in 2013. He was also there when Tipperary hit them for 4-19 in 2011, when John Mullane celebrated in front of Davy a year later, when Cork’s Patrick Horgan gave a dead-ball exhibition during the 2014 semi-final, when debutant Cian Lynch inspired a Limerick victory 12 months later and when Waterford exacted revenge for their league final defeat in June of last year.
“Certainly in the Munster championship, there’s an asterisk beside us because we haven’t won games with this particular group,” O’Connor remarked ahead of this weekend’s Limerick clash.
“You get an opportunity every year and it can’t just be put down to a scoreable free given away or a ball hitting the post. There have been serious issues to address in our performance in Munster and hopefully this year, we can put together a performance capable of beating Limerick.”
A fourth consecutive summer without a provincial victory cannot be allowed materialise. For it’s not as if the qualifiers have been kind to them. Since O’Connor joined the team in 2011, they’ve only twice made it to the quarter-finals and haven’t been seen in Croke Park since 2013.
“What bothers us a lot as a group is that we haven’t really said, ‘that day we went out and gave it our all.’ If it ended in defeat, so be it and we’d have satisfaction in our performance but we haven’t done that. We’ve been dominated in performances and we haven’t really got our game going.
“It certainly does bother the group a lot that this is how our Munster championship record is. We would have been children of the ‘95 and ’97 era when Clare were dominating and you hold those guys in such high esteem.
“But at the end of the day, the Munster championship is so close and the other side of it is we haven’t been beaten out the gate either. You saw it in the league final, any bit of a dip in performance at all and you are there for the taking. Hurling is so competitive in Munster. No Limerick and Clare game has ever been a runaway defeat or victory.”
O’Connor missed Clare’s entire league campaign after undergoing shoulder surgery last December. He reckons he could have continued playing without the operation, even if the pain was keeping him awake at night.
“It wasn’t until I woke up after the surgery that I learned what the actual extent of the damage was. There was quite a bit going on in there. It was a tendon that had torn off the bicep, there was evidence of a slight dislocation and there was an AC joint sprain. If I rolled onto my side during the night I’d wake up with pins and needles.”
He, along with Conor McGrath who also missed the league with a shoulder injury, is expected to make his first start of 2017 at Thurles. And unlike recent years, there’ll be no seventh defender in place with the present management having done away with the sweeper system favoured by Fitzgerald.
“We’ve had to adapt, readjust, realign, so we can perform for what’s best for the team. What it means for me is that we don’t have that safety net around. I don’t prefer a seventh body in defence. A big criticism leveled at us is that our forwards were isolated and it meant, ironically, that the ball coming into us was probably better because there was a free man able to hit us from out the field. It gives us a bit more of a chance.”
He added: “There was so much written about us after 2013 about the flair and the attacking play that we used. We haven’t reproduced it, for one reason or another. That’s the most disappointing thing, whatever about accolades. You put so much into something, you want a satisfactory performance that hasn’t been there.”
Limerick, meanwhile, will be without injured half-back Diarmuid Byrnes and midfielder William O’Donoghue.
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