Clare on cusp of U21 history
Banner firepower to prolong Wexford famine
BORD GÁIS ENERGY
ALL-IRELAND U21 HC FINAL
CLARE v WEXFORD
(Thurles, Tonight 7.0, live TG4)
HERE are so many plots and sub-plots to this evening's U21 showpiece in Semple Stadium that it's hard to know where best to start.
How about Clare's quest for three-in-a-row, an achievement that would confirm this current group's standing as one of the finest underage teams in hurling history?
How about Wexford's bid to end a 49-year famine dating back to 1965, when the county won its only All-Ireland U21 title in the second year of the competition ... and then proceeded to lose its next eight finals?
Maybe history doesn't float your boat but recent rivalry does ... then, surely, that epic senior qualifier saga between these counties last July will have you rhapsodising about the prospect of Tony Kelly, Colm Galvin and Seadna Morey locking hurls, once more, with Liam Ryan, Jack Guiney and Conor McDonald?
Tonight's renewal comes laden with all kinds of exciting possibilities. Clare start as red-hot favourites - 1/4, according to Boylesports. For a team that has blazed such a thrilling trail of destruction through this grade, it could be no other way.
By the same token, Wexford manager JJ Doyle has adopted a bullish tone in his pre-final words to the media and that - too - is perfectly understandable. Going in with a glass-half-empty mentality would be a recipe for ruin.
"If we give a performance, we will win," he boldly predicted. "We are not going down just to give a display and be gallant losers. We don't accept that tag any longer, that's been hanging around us for far too long."
Still, on all available evidence, it will take one hell of a performance for his county to end that eight-match losing streak in U21 finals, the most recent coming in 2001.
They have already overcome Limerick (2-20 to 1-14), Tipperary (5-19 to 1-25), Cork (1-28 to 1-13) and then, in another lopsided repeat of last year's final, Antrim (4-28 to 1-10).
Their Cusack Park thriller with Tipp came just days after the gut-wrenching surrender of Clare's All-Ireland senior crown in Wexford Park, where Davy Fitzgerald's men finally succumbed in extra-time. The closeness of that Munster U21 semi-final would suggest Clare are beatable but, conversely, their star man Kelly said: "The battle that night brought the panel closer together."
Since then, they haven't been forced out of first gear by either Cork or Antrim - a potential worry in the event of a scrap here - but the optimistic rebuttal is that when you're averaging almost 3-24 per game, how many dogfights can you expect?
Not alone are Clare seeking to join Cork, Tipperary and Limerick as the fourth county to land three-in-a-row, they are chasing a fourth All-Ireland U21 crown since 2009. Some strike rate for a county that had never previously contested an U21 decider - or one that failed to win a game at minor or U21 level between 2000 and 2007.
Donal Moloney and Gerry O'Connor are the joint-masterminds behind much of this underage revolution, starting with back-to-back Munster minor titles in 2010 and 2011.
Of the team that started the 2011 Munster final against Waterford, 11 of them are likely to start tonight and eight of those have already played senior championship hurling. That continuity - against a backdrop of high achievement - is a massive weapon.
That said, Wexford won't shy away from the challenge. This group didn't set the world alight in the minor grade but they've subsequently proven their credentials by winning two Leinster U21s on the spin.
In truth, tonight should be a repeat of last year's final ... how Wexford conspired to lose their semi-final against an Antrim team struggling to achieve even the basic numbers for training remains one of the forgotten mysteries of last year's madcap hurling summer.
They have atoned for that mishap in some style, beating both Kilkenny and Offaly by ten points, Dublin by five in the Leinster final and then Galway by two in a ding-dong affair.
Guiney led the semi-final way with 1-8 (7f), but McDonald will arguably demand even more attention from the Clare defence given his stellar impact on the senior stage this summer. At 19, his prowess under the high ball is something to behold but he also possesses the ruthless instincts of a born predator.
You would imagine that Wexford will need at least a couple of goals - McDonald and Guiney the most likely sources - if they're to halt Clare's march towards history. Yet, with freetaker Bobby Duggan (0-31), Aaron Cunningham (6-10) and a certain Shane O'Donnell in the Banner forward ranks, aided by Kelly's dazzling interventions from either centre-forward or midfield, you can't ignore their firepower either ... the sliotar is in their court.
ODDS: Clare 1/4, Draw 13/1, Wexford 7/2
WEXFORD: O O'Leary; A Kenny, L Ryan, E Conroy; J White, S O'Gorman, J O'Connor; A Nolan, C Devitt; J Guiney, G Moore, P Foley; R Clarke, C McDonald, K Foley.