Jamesie OConnor: Clare have a real chance against Waterford, something that did not look likely last month
Clare face Waterford in the Munster Championship opener, and things are looking a lot rosier for the Banner than they were just one month ago.
We can make a case for Clare to win on Sunday, and that is something we did not envisage after two rounds of the National League.
Brian Lohan’s side made the worst possible start to the 2021 intercounty season, losing to Antrim and blowing what looked like a winning position against Wexford.
But they have really turned it around.
The Laois victory was important, just to get a bit of confidence back into the team. The win in Parnell Park was a good result. It’s not necessarily an easy place to go. Clare were vulnerable, but they played well and finished stronger than their hosts.
Then they really backed it up with a great win over Kilkenny in Cusack Park.
Especially given all the controversy throughout the winter and enduring a nightmare start to the league, Clare are really in a different place coming into the championship. I would imagine morale and spirit in the camp is really good.
Even throughout the off-field drama earlier in the year, the players were never in any doubt that Brian Lohan had their back, and wanted the best for them. He is doing his best to provide for them what maybe John Kiely and Liam Sheedy take for granted.
But there are some injury concerns. Shane O’Donnell is ruled out for Sunday. David McInerney is touch-and-go.
But they are in a much better position, personnel-wise, than for last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final between the teams. That day in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Clare were missing Colm Galvin, John Conlon and Ian Galvin, while Tony Kelly rolled his ankle.
All things considered, Clare will believe they can prevail in Semple Stadium.
Waterford on an upward trajectory
Liam Cahill has some concerns of his own. He will have known that neither Tadhg de Búrca nor Stephen O’Keeffe are available this year.
But there are fresh injury worries over Austin Gleeson, Conor Prunty, Shane Fives and Jamie Barron ahead of Sunday.
Waterford will need those guys on the field.
The Déise will still be favourites. They reached the All-Ireland final last year, and I saw enough throughout the National League campaign to suggest they are using that as a springboard. They have players with real athleticism and energy who can play the modern game.
Anybody that beats Waterford this year will know that they have been in a game.
The key for the Suir-siders will be to curtail Tony Kelly. If he is kept quiet, Clare will struggle to put up the scores required to win big matches. It will be interesting to see what Waterford do with him. Will Calum Lyons pick him up?
Brian Lohan will be thinking about Waterford’s attempted gambits – he will be putting the Ballyea man in a position where he can get the best return.
It will be a fascinating contest, and I’m giving Clare more than a fighting chance.
Can Dublin prevail in Navan?
No team in the country takes more positives from the National League into the championship than Antrim.
The Saffrons will believe they can pull off another upset. The longer they remain in the game, the more nervous Dublin will become.
But if Dublin are ultra-professional in their preparations for Saturday, then they should be going up to Páirc Tailteann to get the job done.
There’s enough championship experience and big-game know-how in that panel for them to pay Antrim the respect they deserve.
Granted, there are still question marks. They were in contention against Kilkenny and Clare in recent weeks, but tailed off in the final quarter of both games.
Nonetheless, I do not see them slipping up in the Leinster Championship quarter-final. I expect Mattie Kenny’s team to come out on top.
Sky Sports’ live GAA coverage gets underway this weekend, with a Gaelic football doubleheader on Sky Sports Arena from 3:30pm Saturday. Sligo take on Mayo, before Kerry host Clare.
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