Hurling and camogie

Antrim can play on Clare's deep-rooted problems

Antrim skipper Conor McCann celebrates his goal against Galway in the opening league fixture in 2018. Antrim's run of close shaves on the opening day of Division 1B campaigns will offer hope that they can scalp Clare tomorrow. Picture by Seamus Loughran

Allianz Hurling League Division 1B: Antrim v Clare (tomorrow, 1pm, Corrigan Park, live on TG4 Player App)

IN-fighting, money problems, incomplete facilities and general negativity – it's a tale that Antrim are glad to be looking in on from the other side of the fence.

Clare GAA has endured a long winter of uncomfortable headlines, fractious meetings, public fallouts and accusations that centre largely around the mess of their centre of excellence in Caherlohan.

It has led to wider questions of those in authority but the direct impact on the hurling team is that they have no real base to speak of. They have rarely used the facility owing to the poor playing surfaces and last year trained at various different club grounds for the championship.

In a spring devoid of action, Clare's administrative chaos has become the centre of attention.

Antrim are a county operating in a starkly happy contrast. The hurlers are in top-tier league and championship. Enda McGinley is a big name for the footballers to attract.

A fine new stand has sprung up in Corrigan Park, one that would ordinarily house a huge buzzing crowd tomorrow afternoon.

Instead it will re-open down the lane off the Whiterock Road with passers-by virtually unaware of anything happening inside the blue iron gates. Such silence does not befit Antrim's hopeful return to big-time hurling.

But if they want hope, here it is.

The last six campaigns Antrim have had in Division 1B, stretching back to 2012, have begun to a familiar tune.

Galway just about squirrelled out the gap in 2018. Wexford beat them by one in 2014 and 2015 both, while Antrim won their 2012 meeting. Limerick beat the Saffrons by a goal in '13.

Historical results have little relevance other than to be used as evidence that the first day out is often the day to catch a team cold.

Once the heavyweights in the division start to pick up pace, Antrim's real tests will come. Tests not only of ability, but of the mind and spirit. If Kilkenny or Wexford or Dublin do go to town on them, are they mentally equipped to go at it again the following week?

Or indeed Clare, for that matter.

Seldom have years moved so quickly away from a team. They were heralded as the fresh new face of hurling in 2013 as they won a sensational All-Ireland from nowhere, but they've never fulfilled anything close to their promise since.

The width of a Thurles post was all that stood between them and a second final in 2018 but it was a fleeting moment. They were wiped off the face of the earth by Limerick in Munster last year, and fell away after threatening a rally against Waterford.

It didn't help that they were without John Conlon, Peter Duggan, Colm Galvin and Podge Collins.

Conlon makes his return from a torn cruciate knee ligament tomorrow, though in the unfamiliar home of centre-back. It was his form at full-forward that almost propelled Clare to that 2018 final.

Galvin is back on the squad too, though Duggan is still in Australia and Collins is remaining with the county's footballers for this season.

For Antrim, Seaan Elliott's hopes of a debut are on the back burner after he suffered a broken thumb. But they will have the 20 men who were used in last year's Joe McDonagh Cup final available.

Winning league and championship averaging 2-23 per game despite Neil McManus missing virtually the entire business end of the year was the most significant sign of their progress.

A Clare defence minus five of last year's championship back seven, with only goalkeeper Eibhear Quilligan and full-back Conor Cleary starting, is there to be got at.

The opening day narrative, the dark clouds that hang over Clare hurling and the fact that Antrim will be bursting to show what they're made of is the recipe for a proper contest.

Perhaps the alternative angle is that Clare are a wounded dog themselves. If they take the notion of biting back, they'll not be so easy tied down.

They may not have All-Irelands in them any longer but they do still have days in which they could destroy someone else's hopes.

More negativity, post-match questions over whether the off-field shenanigans are affecting the on-field performance, those are the last things Brian Lohan needs creeping in.

Where Antrim are at in the grand scheme of things won't be determined in one afternoon, win or lose.

This is a day for quiet confidence. Their positivity could expose cracks in Clare's own mentality.

The least Antrim need is to give a serious account of themselves. Do that, and who knows?

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Hurling and camogie