It was a day where the flesh burned in Limerick ,whilst the day trippers in Lahinch found themselves, perhaps karmically, shrouded in fog. The skies were clear in the Gaelic Grounds, but the elements of hurling light and shade were less certain, given Clare's comprehensive victory. A side that had been ranked, not only well behind Kilkenny, but also in a different parish to the likes of Tipperary and Galway, had with one bound been freed from years of Munster underachievement. On the other hand Waterford, twice victors over Cork last summer, have, post spring ennui, and an early summer injury crisis, been deemed to be now beyond the pale by many reasoned judges. A more hyperbolic analyst, Ger Loughnane, might, if he had been on television on Sunday, have aped his hasty opinion post the first round Munster clash between Tipperary and Clare in 2005, tailoring it in these circumstances to say; " Clare Back, Waterford gone". Three years ago Clare recovered from having their epitaph written for them by Mr. Biddy Early to be foiled by a point in an All-Ireland semi-final. And if a similar unfurling of Waterford's season might lead to mass hari kari down suirside, it at least shows that ill championship winds have been known to change direction.
James O'Connor made a prescient point on Sunday that in twenty years of sending out Clare teams at all four grades, Mike McNamara has never presented a side that was ill-prepared. The long suffering die-hards who have masochistically followed underage banner selections in recent years are au fait with his u-21 team two years ago, who were pipped in Thurles by a Tipperary outfit that subsequently on to lead an All-Ireland final in injury time. The squad's confidence was evidently not knocked by an underwhelming league, perceptions about which seemed to take little account of the panel playing, as they did last summer, with an underpowered attacking hand. Oddly enough the performances of Tony Griffin and Diarmuid McMahon, both recently returned from abroad, did little to advertise the importance of the gruelling spring training regimen their team-mates have supposedly endured. It could be that McNamara cannily observed that the wheel has turned full circle, and that his charges perhaps needed the training exertions that have entered the county's folk memory, given the relatively fallow fortunes of recent years, to boost their confidence.
As Clare showed in Croke Park in 2005/6 with all options available they aren't quite the inert attacking force they are often portrayed to be. But these shibboleths are hardly surprising given that many of Clare's forwards are often strangely unloved at home. There has been much pleasant surprise at Niall Gilligan's display on Sunday, which gives the mistaken impression that the Sixmilebridge man has been poor on many big days in the saffron and blue. Gilligan has, if anything, been the victim of lofty expectations due to his exploits when he burst on to the scene in the final three years of the last decade. Beside him Mark Flaherty stroked the ball beautifully from play and especially from frees. Indeed with Conor Plunkett doing a good Seanie Mac impression from long range it was hard to remember Clare's dead ball prowess ever being crisper in the modern era. But the achilles heel in the current attacking crop, a lack of aerial power, despite their non-diminutive status, will face greater tests down the line.
It would be a strange Galway-like pressure for the Clare forwards to feel that they have to continue winning shoot-outs, but those who felt there were elements redolent of Clare's glory days shouldn't have been referring to their defensive play. Against a half-forward line that could charitably be described as undercooked, the banner half-backs needed to be little more than energetic and diligent. If Clare had been told at the turn of the year that they would face Waterford's forwards without Gerry Quinn, Alan Markham and for half the game Gerry O' Grady they would have felt, correctly as it turned out, that a large score would be conceded and an onerous pressure would be on the forwards. Although many of John Mullane's scores came from loose play rather than the inadequacies of markers, it was instructive how much possession Shane O' Sullivan won in the latter stages of the game, in the unfamiliar environs for him of corner forward. Similarly Gary Hurney's inability to make an impact on the fray was more down to ball usage rather than being unable to get it in his hand. Thus Gerry O 'Grady's possible absence from the Clare team against Limerick might properly put under the microscope the frailties in the full back line which have not received due care and attention up till now. It could validly be argued that the Crusheen man, for all his inconsistency, is the most important player for the banner at present, and his loss may, at this remove at least, swing things towards Limerick.
As for Waterford, well it appears an open and shut case. most scribes have claimed their attitude and work rate was questionable. But as Tony Griffin declared afterwards, Clare always find matches against the Deise to be open affairs. The return of Ken McGrath and Eoin Murphy will doubtless improve matters, but in the formers case just as much for his creative potential as a libero centre back as for his prowess as a stopper. The Mount Sion great would have been as unlikely to track Diarmuid McMahon's wanderings as Brian Phelan was. One indirect boon to the return of the aforementioned pair would be that it might offer security to whoever had the poisoned chalice of the No. 3 shirt thrust upon them. One option, though admittedly it would be of the sticking plaster variety, would be for Justin McCarthy to offer James Murray an eleventh hour return to the panel. Murray, a conscientious and versatile contributor to the side throughout the decade, wasn't afforded a return after a winter abroad. When you consider some of the mutterings of dissention emanating from around the panel it seems like a hubristic decision to keep the 'bearded wonder' in purdah when other more volatile characters have been frequently indulged.
It would appear very difficult now for Waterford to knitt all the pieces together as impressively as in the last two years. But if, and it's a big one, Kilkenny have fallen from their perch, their southern neighbours might, with a bit of luck, not need to reach the heights of last season to be serious contenders. For Clare it would be wise, not that we forsee Mike Mac getting carried away, to beware the ides of 2003. Then, a victory over a pallid and injury hit Tipperary gave the county hopes that were snuffed out on the next day by far more cohesive opposition in Thurles. We shall see.