Colours of summer now clearer

Colours of summer now clearer

Saturday, March 15, 2014, Irish Examiner

The colour scheme at Croke Park on September 7 this year will consist of saffron and blue and black and amber. Saffron and blue because Clare will be a better team in 2014 than they were in 2013.

Black and amber because Kilkenny will be considerably better in 2014 than they were in 2013. No other colours will be visible because no other county will have improved sufficiently to match these two.

That made you sit up, didn’t it? Relax. Every now and then a columnist is obliged, if not to stir it, then to make his argument in the intro, and beat the reader over the head with it, as opposed to building up to it carefully and waiting till the final couple of paragraphs before giving it both barrels.

And yes, the flaws in the opening paragraph here are manifold, perhaps best summed up in two words. Too early. The Saturday after Cheltenham, three rounds of league played, is patently far too early to make wild predictions about who will be seen in Dublin 3 half a year away.

It’s not too early, however, to assert that 2014 will not see a more forthright statement of intent than that issued by Clare selector Louis Mulqueen in this paper last month.

“All the others will be targeting a Clare team that I would say won a pure hurling final… We were playing dynamic hurling. People will now be trying to come up with a way to counteract that. In fact, we’ll have to come up with a way ourselves to counteract it. That’s where Clare hurling has to go — Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, work on it even more so that even Plan D and E have to be considered.”

Doesn’t sound like someone settling for just the one MacCarthy Cup, does it? Clare are gearing up for a long war. Same army as last year, same general staff but a new battle plan. Because the battle plan that won last year’s war will not suffice to win this year’s war.

They’ve done more than just talk about it. They consciously made a statement against Kilkenny at Cusack Park last month. They decided no statement was necessary against Dublin a week later. Then, last Sunday at Semple Stadium, they made a state of the union address against Tipperary and they took care to bring a loudhailer for the purpose of amplification.

The message went as follows. We can hurl in different registers. We can play six forwards or five forwards. We can isolate your full-back either way, as we did to Paddy Stapleton. We can make opponents worry about whether or not to follow our centre-forward when he roams and we can destabilise your defence if he does. We can hit 25 points in an All-Ireland final and five goals in another. We’re playing a different game to the one everyone else is playing. A different game to the ones everyone in the history of the sport played before. The burning question has changed from ‘Who’ll keep it pucked out to Kilkenny?’ a few years ago to ’Who’ll outthink Clare?’

The wheel has made its latest and most interesting turn since Cork’s possession game of the mid-90s.

Regardless of the date, the list of obvious kingslayers is not a long one right now. Dublin are in a slump. The visit of Kilkenny to Parnell Park tonight may indicate if it’s a passing weakness or something more serious, something along the lines of the hangover that afflicted them, with such dire consequences for the championship, in 2012.

Tipperary have barely managed two good halves of league hurling in six attempts. Reaching the quarter-finals, thereafter possibly to stumble across their optimum XV, is now an imperative, if only because the alternative — not reaching the knockout stages and spending the run-up to June 1 in a state of suspended non-animation — is simply not an option. If Tipp fans don’t believe they’ll do anything in a given year, and right now they don’t, the rest of us have no cause to believe either.

Galway? They lost one of their goalkeepers during the week, an apposite occurrence after their full-back and centre-back repeatedly lost their markers at Nowlan Park last Sunday. On that evidence, Galway’s chronic problems down their spine will not be solved any time soon.

Speaking of losing players, Cork said goodbye during the week to their subtlest, most experienced defender. Can you think of, say, two notable individual feats Brian Murphy performed in the red jersey, his part in the famous sweep down the field in the 2005 Munster final that started with Dónal Óg Cusack’s save from Eoin Kelly and ended in Kieran Murphy’s point, apart? Doubtful. Now: can you think of two notable feats any opposing forward performed while being marked by Murphy? The absence of an affirmative constitutes the definition of a really good corner-back.

Yet Cork, who probably didn’t receive the credit they did for getting so far last year, have better championship prospects than a number of the teams in the division above them. Thing is, they’ll have to step up again to be seen in September. Cork had to beat both Kilkenny and Clare last year to win the All-Ireland and very nearly did so. To win it this year, they may well be required to beat both an improved Clare and a significantly improved Kilkenny. A tall order.

Waterford could be a better team than last season without reaching Croke Park. But one team on the evidence thus far will reach Croke Park in 2014 are the guys in stripes.

Brian Cody has used 27 players in the league, none called Michael Fennelly or Richie Power. Twelve of them have been defenders.

He’s not just trying to build a new rearguard; he’s trying to build a new rearguard that will cope with Clare.

Last season’s rearguard wouldn’t have coped. Hogan (32), Delaney (31), Tyrrell (31) and Walsh (30) against McGrath (22), Collins (21), Kelly (19) and O’Donnell (19)? At Croke Park? In August or September? Please.

If Cody had just cause to bemoan his team’s bad luck with injuries last summer, he will surely have secretly acknowledged their good luck in not getting as far as a date with Clare. Not least because Kilkenny — who, it shouldn’t be forgotten, took three matches to come to terms with the movement of the Galway forwards in 2012 — wouldn’t have seen Clare coming.

Next time, they, Tipp and everyone else will have seen Clare coming. And fair enough, not being able for whichever plan from the portfolio Clare throw at them will be a possibility. Not being prepared for it, though, will be no excuse at all.

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