Nickey Brennan: Late Banner recovery sets up clash with Kilkenny

Clare will provide interesting opposition to Kilkenny when the sides meet in the National Hurling League semi-finals in Semple Stadium, Thurles on Sunday week.

Clare will provide interesting opposition to Kilkenny when the sides meet in the National Hurling League semi-finals in Semple Stadium, Thurles on Sunday week.

I say interesting in that the teams have not met competitively for some time and the current Clare side is composed of many players from their successful under-21 side which defeated Kilkenny in 2009.

The Clare players may be unfamiliar to many of their Kilkenny opponents, but not their manager. Davy Fitzgerald knows the Black & Amber brigade and, in particular, Brian Cody very well. Like Anthony Cunningham two weeks ago, Davy is probably sick and tired of the stripey men also.

As Fitzgerald starts to mould his native county into a competitive championship outfit he has the satisfaction of knowing that he has already secured Division 1A status in 2013. He has, therefore, achieved his first target.

I listened to the Clare v Limerick Division 1B final on Clare FM last Saturday evening and only one result seemed possible when the Treaty men led by eight points midway through the second half.

The commentary team spoke about the fitness of the Clare players and that this might be a factor at the finish. I smiled at their optimism.

I am sure fitness levels were a factor in Clare’s success, but the belief that Fitzgerald has instilled in his young side was also a factor. Young players can easily ‘drop the heads’ when a game is slipping away from them, but not Clare on this occasion.

Energetic manager

Urged on by their energetic manager on the sideline, Clare slowly chipped away at the Limerick lead. As the game ebbed to a conclusion extra-time appeared the likely outcome. But the momentum was all with Clare and while Limerick battled gamely to hold on to a slender lead, it was no surprise when the Banner men scored once again at the most important moment in the game.

Kilkenny will be very different opponents for Clare, but with the Banner men due to face Waterford in the Munster championship in a couple of weeks, this is ideal preparation for Davy Fitzgerald’s side. He will know a lot more about his players after their encounter with the Cats.

The current Clare side is fast, extremely fit and very enthusiastic. Their manager has instilled a belief and confidence in the players which was evident throughout the National Hurling League. But that was in Division 1B and Kilkenny will offer a different test on Sunday week.

The Banner has, thus far, not encountered the physicality which Kilkenny brings to its game. They will also have to quickly adapt to a game which will be of a higher tempo than anything they experienced in Division 1B.

Mixed performances

Despite topping Division 1A Kilkenny delivered mixed performances during the league. Still, as the competition enters the knockout stages, the Cats remain the team to beat.

Despite a number of stirring encounters during the league, the format remains flawed. Five games (aside from the knockout stages) is far too little for the both the counties involved and the game in general.

Hopefully sense will prevail and the 2013 NHL will revert to eight team groups with semi-finals and a final. Hurling supporters are being badly short-changed by the current format.

Next weekend in Nowlan Park we will get an opportunity at close hand to judge the form of four Leinster counties. Carlow and Westmeath were the stand out Division 2 sides during the league and will provide an entertaining final.

Success next Sunday in Nowlan Park will afford one of these sides the opportunity to measure their progress against stronger league opposition in 2013.

Wexford’s hurling plight is clear for all to see with a relegation battle against Laois next Sunday a measure of the county’s current hurling status. The Model County should win and retain their Division 1B status, but that is far from a foregone conclusion.

Wexford hurling has been in a state of decline for some time. The future looks anything but positive, given the limited success at under-age levels for many years. Maybe when Liam Dunne looks back on the league he will particularly regret the loss to Antrim.

Dunne started his inter-county managerial career with the Walsh Cup in February, choosing to give fringe players an opportunity to impress. For the opening league encounter against Antrim he picked a team that had seen limited action during the Leinster tournament.

Of course he had a dilemma. He wanted to give a chance to new players, but he also needed to pick up two points in Casement Park. This was one time when securing two league points should have taken precedence over trialling players in the Walsh Cup.

Difficult introduction

Teddy McCarthy has not had an easy introduction to inter-county management. His Laois side has notched up decent scores, but defensively they have been found wanting.

The Laois men have often performed well in Nowlan Park against Wexford, but a 15-point defeat against the same opponents, albeit in Wexford Park, two weeks ago does not augur well for Sunday next.

When Antrim manager Jerry Wallis looks back on this league, he too, no doubt will have mixed thoughts. He was deprived of his Loughgiel contingent due to their All-Ireland club commitments. That was a big loss.

Nevertheless, as Antrim lined out against Limerick last Sunday week in Casement Park they were still in contention for a place in the Division 1B league final. Two weeks after their victory in the All-Ireland club final, the Loughgiel players were conspicuous by their absence against the Shannonsiders.

I am sure their absence was not lost on the Antrim supporters when the Loughgiel players paraded the Tommy Moore Cup during the half-time interval in the Limerick/Antrim game. The presence of the Loughgiel players may not have affected the final result, but the defeat suffered by the Glensmen would surely have been less than 14 points.

Meanwhile, down in Tullamore Clare were edging out Offaly by a single point. The Faithful County might have won had Shane Dooley opted for a goal from a late free instead of scoring a point.

Had Dooley scored a three-pointer (and the odds would have heavily been on him hitting the back of the Clare net) and Antrim lost by less than 13 points, the Offaly men would have contested last weekend’s Division 1B league final against Clare instead of Limerick.

On such small margins and decisions are games won and lost!