In this week’s column, Martin Kiely looks at where the Clare and Limerick hurlers stand as the 2016 season gets underway.
Hurling on wet ground and long grass was never that appealing.
Such conditions are not conducive to good hurling. However, having spent some months away from the sound of ash on leather, supporters are always looking for early signals to summer performance. Such was the harsh weather conditions over last weekend no one would have been surprised if games were called off but it was a credit to both the Gaelic Grounds and Sixmilebridge that both games went ahead.
Limerick as expected took care of Kerry while Clare struck late against Cork. These games can provide a glimpse of attitude, early fitness and new players. I was in Sixmilebridge last Sunday to see Clare and Cork and what impressed me most was the work rate of both teams. Yes it’s early in the season and looking for solid indicators for later in the year might be a leap too far but from what I saw last Sunday both of these counties are hell bent on making up for their lack of performance last year. Clare have been working hard and from the time I saw them pucking around the rear of the National School in Sixmilebridge to the time they left the venue I noticed a far more focused outfit than last year.
In some respects Limerick and Clare are on similar roads this year and when speaking to Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald I was also left in no doubt. “We have a lot of work to do but I like the way the lads are applying themselves,” he said. “We will treat the Munster league with the respect it deserves and we won’t be holding back. The National League is only around the corner and every game is important. If it all goes to plan we could be looking at a massive game against Limerick in Cusack Park.”
Before Fitzgerald uttered those words I could feel his passion. He knows only too well that getting out of Division 1B of the league would be an ideal start point to build for the championship. Few managers are as well placed as Davy Fitzgerald to assess the talent in Limerick hurling. He is also manager of the LIT Fitzgibbon Cup team and would have players assessed long before they ever get go to college or make county teams. Limerick included some new names from the U-21s last Sunday and that was good to see. New talent has to make a serious challenge for places if Limerick are to have any hope of making a major breakthrough in 2016.
Playing Kerry was an ideal way to start new players but bigger tests and challenges lie ahead and that should give us further insight into the future development of new players. One thing is for sure - both Limerick and Clare have room for improvement and the next few weeks will be very interesting. Clare had a pep in their step last Sunday, they had a hunger that suggest the All Ireland champions of 2013 have not gone away.
Cork blooded a lot of new players and I was impressed by some of them. One young lad that stood out was Cathal Cormack. His father John won an All Ireland with Tipperary in the late 80s under Babs Keating. He has good hands and good vision and could well be a contender for a place later this year. John Cormack was involved with Na Piarsaigh for a short time and it’s no surprise that his son is following in his footsteps.
Cork have put a new manager and backroom team in place and it was interesting to study them last Sunday. Men like Pat Hartnett, Diarmuid O’Sullivan and Pat Ryan will provide Kieran Kingston with a solid sideline team. There was a time when Cork dominated hurling but that has long since passed. Morale is low within the county but huge work in still going on. It would be foolish for anyone to take them for granted this season.
Like a number of teams they are a couple of players short but I think they had some good minors that will see action late in the National League and will be sprung in the championship. New selector Pat Hartnett was pleased with their opening game. “We are looking to find new players that can survive at this level. When we look around at teams like Limerick, Clare and Waterford you can see the challenge that lies ahead for us. It will take time and some hard days but I am confident that these lads will develop in the very near future.”
Clare managed to curtail a rising Cork when Shane O’Donnell goaled near the end of the contest in Sixmilebridge and it was pretty clear the win meant a lot to the Clare outfit. According to Davy Fitzgerald it was a case of setting the tone. “Small things matter in building a team and I saw signs today that tell me we are making progress. We freshened up our backroom team and I am delighted with the input the new lads have brought.
“Donal Og Cusack is the big name but Aengus O’Brien (former coach to Limerick minor hurlers) has made a telling impact. I get the sense it going to be a cracking year of hurling, a few teams could win the championship and if we are right we won’t be far away.”
Every manager is under pressure to do well and despite winning the All Ireland in 2013 Davy Fitzgerald knows that the banner supporters have short memories. Hero status is short lived in hurling and he is very much aware that this is a big year.
Limerick manager TJ Ryan is also under pressure to deliver. Last year was a major disappointment and the U-21s winning the All Ireland has raised expectation within the county. He also has made major changes to his backroom team and it’s fair to say everyone is in no doubt that they must make things happen this year.
Management is only one part of the jigsaw and the players also must dig deep. We have the players to compete with other counties and if the desire is right Limerick will make life difficult for a lot of teams.