Cruise for Clare
Brendan Furlong, the only journalist at Saturday’s tie in Tagoat, gives his verdict
Don't be fooled, Clare are ready for the championship. Let no one be taken in by their league relegation. But of more importance - what's the Wexford story?
It's not uncommon for the Clare manager, Davy Fitzgerald, to bring his small frame but strong personality to bear on any fixture once the Banner county is involved.
Usually he rattles out his string of demands both on and off the pitch. He controlled the Wexford versus Clare Senior hurling challenge on Saturday morning from the outset.
Davy was adamant that he needed Wexford Park for the game. This request was initially granted, but later overturned with the Wexford-Kilkenny Minor game taken into the equation. So Davy, though not at all happy apparently, had to take his charges to the St. Mary's club grounds in Tagoat.
The pre-match requests did not end there. He sought a game behind closed doors beginning at 11 a.m., with the gates closed at 10.15 a.m. Still a few hardy souls made an entrance. Having been earlier informed of the requests of the Clare manager, and that Gardaí would secure the gates, I decided to make my way to the venue and arrived at 9.45 a.m.
Clare meant business. They arrived in a string of mini-buses rather than one team bus. Manager Fitzgerald and his backroom team were calling out the early instructions as the Wexford players began to arrive by car.
It's something of a novelty, even in 2015, to witness such inter-action with players and management of both camps at such an early hour as they prepared for their challenge showdown.
The Munster county showed how serious they were taking the game. They were fielding up to 13 of what they expect to be included in their championship 15. For Wexford the same urgency was not prevalent as they mixed up their team, with players like Lee Chin, Eoin Moore, Tomás Waters, Ian Byrne and Paul Morris not featuring at any stage.
But was this a golden opportunity lost with no more than five weeks to the championship opener against the round robin runners-up? Wexford's preparations will also be curtailed over the coming two weeks with the club hurling championship in progress, which made this the ideal game, against a quality side such as Clare, to present your championship 24-man squad, ready for an assault on the title race.
Wexford it was felt were not ready for such a serious game, with missing players through injury or otherwise, and as a result they went down to a 5-20 to 1-20 defeat. While many of the fringe players were given an opportunity, few enhanced their prospects, as many were out of their depth.
Are we ready? Have we the strength in depth? Can we compete at the highest level?
To answer the opening question, they have a mountain of work over the coming weeks as the team does not look settled and needs to be given game time together. The second question needs a more detailed analysis.
For a short reply the management hands are tied. We are struggling with strength in depth, being very much reliant on a choice from 18 to 19 players.
The third question is an honours maths situation. We can compete to a degree but the stronger opposition will leave us exposed in what now is a 20-man game, particularly against sides such as Kilkenny, Dublin, Cork and Tipperary. I would say at this stage that Waterford have leap-frogged us since that qualifier of 2014.
Wexford's showing against Clare, albeit in a challenge game, must still have alarmed manager Liam Dunne and his backroom set-up. Clare put so much into that game both on and off the pitch compared to Wexford. Why did Wexford fail to make the most of what was a real opportunity to step up their championship preparations?
Clare were so much sharper, so much better in every aspect of the game. In their first touch, quality deliveries, defending and setting up attacking options, they clearly overpowered Wexford. Wexford in comparison were in disarray, with poor defending from the netminder out, being unable to man mark, while the attack was devoid of ideas. Really the end result could have been even more embarrassing.
It didn't take long to start asking serious questions of Wexford. Are Wexford ready to go for the jugular? Regardless of what happened last year this is a whole new ball game. Wexford are no long longer hiding in the long grass - the counties are ready and waiting for them.
Perhaps that's a good thing. It will dampen the hype and get the players back to a level playing pitch, but one is still worried by the unsettled nature of the set-up, with no sight of a definite team even during the league and following an exhaustive list of challenge games.
Of course management may have their minds made up. Liam Dunne has been used to battling against the odds, even as a player, but given his vast experience he surely would like to be able to present his championship starting line-up for games such as this. Game time is so important for any team as it's difficult to fatten the pig on the day of the fair - that championship opener on June 7.
Looking at the Clare challenge one learned very little. But one was alarmed at the poor quality of Wexford's hurling, with poor striking, poor marking and little cohesion to their play, factors one would expect at the end of April following five months of challenge, league and training time.
Wexford's options are becoming more and more limited given the time frame. Let's hope that Liam Dunne has something spectacular up his sleeve come the championship opener.
Injury to Morris is causing concern
Ferns clubman Paul Morris is an injury concern for the Wexford Senior hurlers as they begin the countdown to their championship opener.
Wexford await the round robin series before knowing who their June 7 opponents will be. They will be paired with the runners-up from that section which starts this coming weekend.
However, Morris, who missed out on the latest round of league games, only returned to competitive training on Tuesday night at the U.C.D. complex with the county squad.
The attacker received a medial knee ligament injury which ruled him out of the latter stages of the league campaign, where his finishing power was certainly missed.
Just back following a seven-week absence, Morris' progress will be monitored over the club championship with Ferns when it is hoped he will come through unscathed. However, the Senior management are concerned as it will eventually take an operation to sort out his medial knee ligament problem.
Manager Liam Dunne said: 'Paul took part in contact training at U.C.D. on Tuesday night. It was his first time after seven weeks. His situation will be monitored but it's an injury that's going to need surgery.
'He is hoping to get through the season for both club and county. It's a medial knee ligament problem that only surgery can cure. He will undergo the operation later in the year.
'At present, we are monitoring the situation, hoping he will come through the club games. That will be a real test,' he added.
Meanwhile, footballers Jim White (Oylegate-Glenbrien) and Simon Donohoe (Shelmaliers) have joined in on training sessions with the hurling squad, while Adamstown's Tony French and Shane Murphy (St. James') have also been involved.
'They are training with the hurling set-up. We will be keeping a close look,' Dunne said.
Donohoe was part of the hurling squad initially but then decided to have an involvement with the county's footballers.
'Simon is in a dilemma at the moment. Really it's up to himself at the end of the day as to his direction, whether it be hurling or football,' Dunne noted.