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Davy Fitzgerald's Clare out to Tipp the balance in showdown

2013 All-Ireland final hero Shane O'Donnell is out of Clare's Division One quarter-final clash with Tipperary on Sunday after sustaining a foot injury
Neil Loughran

Allianz National Hurling League Division One quarter-final: Clare v Tipperary (Sunday, Cusack Park, 3.45pm, extra-time if necessary)

IT HAS been a difficult few years for Clare since they won the All-Ireland title in 2013, but they will bid to announce their return to hurling’s top table by putting Tipperary to the sword in Ennis on Sunday.

With back-to-back All-Ireland U21 Championships from 2012 to '14 to go with that Liam MacCarthy success and a clutch of exciting new players knocking on the door of Davy Fitzgerald’s starting 15, the Banner were seen in some quarters as long-term heirs to Kilkenny’s throne.

The reality has been quite different. The defence of the All-Ireland title ended ignominiously in the Qualifiers to Wexford at Cusack Park, following hot on the heels of a Munster exit at the hands of Cork.

Last year wasn’t much better as Clare were relegated from Division 1A with only one win from five, before Championship defeats to Limerick in Munster and then the Rebels appeared to spell the end for Fitzgerald. But never one to shy away from a challenge, he went away and recalibrated his backroom team to try and bring the best out of the latest Clare golden generation.

In came former Cork goalkeeper and respected pundit Donal Og Cusack while, just as importantly, back into the fold came Paul Kinnerk. A coach when they won the All-Ireland three years ago and a former selector at minor and U21 level, Kinnerk is believed to be a hugely popular figure among the Clare players and his return is seen as significant.

Cahair O'Kane and Neil Loughran run the rule over this weekend's big hurling fixtures:

 

The signs so far look positive. Five wins from five saw them coast through Division 1B, with victory over rivals Limerick a fortnight ago the most important in terms of preparation for what they will face on Sunday.

Fitzgerald will have watched Tipperary’s progress under Michael Ryan with interest, as wins over Dublin and Cork at Semple Stadium book-ended an otherwise frustrating league campaign. They could count themselves unlucky in succumbing to a late onslaught from Brian Cody’s relentless Cats at Nowlan Park before, a week later, losing out by a point to Waterford in Thurles.

A John O’Dwyer point four minutes into added-time saw them rescue a point against Galway at Pearse Stadium in a game they also could have won, but they go into Sunday’s quarter-final with a spring in their step after that March 20 win over Cork.

Both management teams face selection headaches, with Tipp boss Ryan missing Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher (knee) and corner-back Liam Cahill (hamstring). There is some good news though as wing-backs Barry Heffernan and Pádraic Maher could both return, while forward star Jason Forde may also come back into the fold.

Clare, meanwhile, will be without Shane O’Donnell, David McInerney (back), Tony Kelly (ankle), Pat Donnellan (cruciate) and Seadna Morey (hips), while vice-captain Colin Ryan is on honeymoon. O’Donnell - who famously scored a hat-trick inside the first 19 minutes of the 2013 All-Ireland final replay win over Cork - misses out with a foot injury.

In a further blow for Fitzgerald, dual-player Podge Collins has opted to line out for the Clare footballers when they face Kildare in Newbridge in their final Division Three game on Sunday. 

With such a cast list of players unavailable for one reason or another, Davy Fitzgerald may just have to wait a bit longer for the Banner to show they are back to mix it with the big boys.

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