Clare hurlers banking on Cusack Park 'fortress'
By John Harrington
Clare joint-manager, Gerry O’Connor, believes the manner in which his team have turned Cusack Park into a ‘fortress’ will be vital to their Munster Championship ambitions this year.
In the last six seasons Clare have lost just two of 20 League and Championship matches in Ennis.
And, according to O’Connor, their victories there over Waterford and Limerick in the Munster SHC last year renewed the bond between the Clare supporters and their team.
“The buzz it gave us was that, if we are fair, we had only a very middling product as a Clare hurling team and management in 2017 to sell to the Clare public and it took a while for the players and the supporters to bond and gel,” said O’Connor.
“Halfway through that first-half in Waterford last year, when Shane O'Donnell hit that shoulder on the Waterford full-back, that kind of lifted the crowd and there has been a very strong connection and bond between the Clare team and the public for the last year.
“We have essentially turned Cusack Park into a fortress now. That is a huge positive for us. We have lost very few games there and played very well.
“The supporters are very close to the pitch and they get right behind the team. There is an energy that comes down off the stands that the players feed off.
“It's about the small things: the way the wind blows there, the surface. If you have been training and playing there...A lot of these guys have been training and playing there for the last ten years from underage so there is a familiarity with the pitch.
“You know that if the wind is blowing in this particular direction that the ball will drift in from the left post maybe and the same on the opposite side. That's just the way it is. The other huge advantage is that, logistically, it is all very easy.
“Everyone meets about an hour and a half beforehand. It doesn't feel like a long drawn out process on the day so from that perspective there are an awful lot of advantages to playing at home.”
Because O’Connor knows just how important home advantage in the Munster SHC is, he’s keenly aware that Clare face a massive challenge on Sunday when they face Waterford in Walsh Park in the first round of the provincial Championships.
Not having any home matches in Munster last year put Waterford at a major disadvantage, so being given the green light to play Clare and Limerick at Walsh Park in this summer’s Campionship was a huge post for Paraic Fanning and his team.
O’Connor accepts this, but is also hopeful his players can take the home crowd out of the game on Sunday by starting the game strongly.
“It's a massive boost for them but it also puts massive pressure on a team at home,” he said. “If you don't start very well and there is this weight of expectation on you.
That's the other side of playing away: if you can get in a good start and get the team under pressure that is playing at home that puts the prssure back on them.
“That is the Munster Championship now. You have your two home games and your two away games.
Get that first game out of the way and make sure you are absolutely right for your two home games because if you don't perform and get the results there I don't think you're going anywhere in this championship.
“The only way we can look at it is the championship last year and, whether it was Munster or Leinster, it was very obvious that the home teams definitely seemed to have an advantage and the further you travelled the more the advantage was with the home team.”
Forewarned is forearmed, and it will surely have been to Clare’s benefit that they had a dry-run for Sunday when they were beaten by Waterford in this year's Allianz Hurling League Quarter-Final at Walsh Park.
O’Connor admits he and his players learned a lot of hard lessons from that experience.
“It is a completely new venture for us because, when you're playing in the Munster Championship, it's normally Thurles or Limerick or Cork and you can plan logistically very well,” he said.
“You get your time lines right for the morning and the afternoon.
“It's obviously going to be an overnight situation for us because there's no way you could just rock up on the day of the game.
“It's about two and a half to three hours but there is a whole host of logistics around that that don't make it feasible as a day journey.
“There is the cost factor as well. We travelled down on the morning of the game against Waterford in Walsh Park in the National League and we definitely knew that that wasn't the right thing to do.”