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Clare's John Conlon signs autographs after the Limerick game. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane
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Clare's John Conlon signs autographs after the Limerick game. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane
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The Christy O'Connor column: Clare's hurlers feel their time has come again

THE Cork hurlers were in Fota last Friday and Saturday as they finalised their preparations for Sunday’s Munster final. The pitch was, as always, in pristine condition. The hurling sessions were sharp. The match was top class. Cork look ready for Clare. But they need to be.

After three successive, and big, championship wins since losing their opening game to Cork, Clare are coming into this game with huge confidence and momentum.

The team is also better positioned now since that opening game in May, especially down the central spine of their attack with Tony Kelly at centre-forward and John Conlon at full-forward.

Conlon is currently in the running for Hurler-of-the-Year and has been outstanding in Clare’s last four matches, particularly against Cork, Waterford and Limerick. From 15 plays in Cusack Park two weeks ago, Conlon scored four points from play while he was fouled for two frees and set up another point.

Conlon scored five points from play against Cork in May from the half-forward line but his presence and ball-winning ability has since given Clare a huge long-ball option and physical edge at the edge of the square. When the ball went into the Clare full-forward line against Cork in May, it came out too easily. It won’t on Sunday.

Kelly’s form is better now too than he showed against Cork last time out when he was limited to just seven plays. Excellent against Waterford when hitting six points from play, he was quiet against Tipperary, and in the first half against Limerick, before exploding after the break two weeks ago; from 11 plays in that period, Kelly scored four points from play while he had two assists and was fouled for a free.

Clare will take plenty of other positives from how they are performing now compared to six weeks ago; Peter Duggan is much more accurate from frees now than he was that afternoon, having hit 1-33 from placed balls in his last three games. Against Limerick, Duggan nailed 11 from 12 attempts, with the sole miss coming back off the post.

Other Clare players have stepped up in the meantime since that last Cork meeting. Jamie Shanahan didn’t start that day but he was Clare’s best player against Limerick. Podge Collins didn’t feature at all on May 20th but he was excellent when coming on against Tipperary, and highly productive in the second half against Limerick.

Clare's Podge Collins and Richie English of Limerick. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Clare's Podge Collins and Richie English of Limerick. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Defenders Jack Browne, Patrick O’Connor and David McInerney are also in better form. So is Conor Cleary and Seadna Morey. Limerick may have been flat but an attack which had been averaging 1-25 was held to 0-15.

Clare will need to breach the 26-point mark to beat Cork now. They managed 1-21 against them in May but when Clare looked at their stats after that game, they felt they had played better than the scoreboard reflected. They created goal chances but, not only did they not take them, they didn’t even force Anthony Nash into any saves.

Clare could have won that game but, they could have had similar claims in 2014, 2015 and 2017, and they still haven’t beaten Cork in five years.

Clare have that deep motivation now but they will also hope to have learned a great deal from their two defeats to Cork in the last 12 months. The Cork forwards worked harder than the Clare forwards in May while Clare tied themselves up in a straitjacket last July when focussing more on trying to stop Cork — especially Anthony Nash’s puck-outs — than concentrating on their own attacking strengths.

Clare joint-manager Gerry O’Connor said this week that Clare won’t make that mistake again but Clare still need to learn from those games, ranging from defensive matchups, discipline, compressing the space more at the back. And being much more clinical up front.

Clare are more expressive now. The ingrained culture of their old system was clearly still evident last year when Clare failed to supply their full-forward line with any real decent ball. It was even worse when Clare’s wide count from distance went through the roof.

Conlon’s presence inside has radically helped alter that style but Clare will also need to shut down the space at the other end, which Cork — especially Alan Cadogan — went to town in last year.

Clare had more of a fluid sweeping and holding defensive presence in May but Cork still got around it, primarily because Clare’s work-rate in the middle third wasn’t high enough.

The dynamic of Clare’s team has changed in the meantime but they will still look to be more structured, especially on their shape, in that sector. Cathal Malone will probably be detailed to man-mark Darragh Fitzgibbon while Podge Collins will look to get into Daniel Kearney’s orbit, while also constantly providing a link in the middle between defence and attack. That would also allow Colm Galvin to sit a little deeper to provide more cover in front of Seamus Harnedy and Conor Lehane. And inside, David McInerney will probably be detailed to man-mark Patrick Horgan.

One of Clare’s biggest regrets last year was the lack of intensity and aggression they brought to the game. They ramped up the physical heat in their last three games and Clare have more motivation than ever to dial it up further now against Cork.

Clare still need to be more disciplined than they were against Cork in May. They will also need to be stronger in the air, especially against Harnedy.

Clare feel they are in a much better place. Yet the flipside to all of this is that Cork will feel much better equipped now than they were in May. They are still unbeaten. The fast pitch in Thurles is made for them, especially their pace.

Cork will also surely have been aggrieved at some of the recent talk about Clare’s renaissance and, how Clare’s status as real All-Ireland contenders has almost been deemed more worthy now than Cork’s.

Clare have a huge point to prove on Sunday. But so have Cork.