This clash of champs is all about laying down marker for season

It is hard to imagine that the expectation level for Christmas was even as great. The Allianz National Hurling League looks set for a sensational lift off.

It is hard to imagine that the expectation level for Christmas was even as great. The Allianz National Hurling League looks set for a sensational lift off.

Kilkenny fans are mad for action. Clare fans are too, apparently.

Ennis should be rocking on Sunday for the match of the day between champions, Clare (All-Ireland) and champions, Kilkenny (League).

The GAA knew what it was doing when it pitted these two attractive teams together to open the League. The fixture has grabbed the imagination of fans, and the vibe one gets from locals is that they have been waiting for this one since the draws were announced.

Kilkenny were knocked out of the championship last July. Whether it is a feeling of exclusion from the big time or the excitement being generated by the assembling of a new and exciting panel - perhaps it is a mix of both - it is hard to make out why the excitement level is so high.

High it is, however! There was a time in the late eighties when the National League programme was broken up with some games played before Christmas and others after it, beginning in February.

One well remembers going to Cork, especially, on occasions and anything from 4/5,000 Kilkenny fans would travel.

You know, I think we could be heading towards such travelling numbers for Sunday’s game. Remember, over 2,000 travelled to Freshford a few weeks ago to see how Henry (Shefflin) might get on in a low key Walsh Cup tie.

The League is part of the big time. And opening against All-Ireland champions who have brought a new and exciting approach to things is proving to be one heck of a lure.

Both counties have enjoyed a good pre-season, without extending themselves.

Kilkenny won the Walsh Cup. Clare got to the final of the equivalent in Munster, the Waterford Crystal tournament. Tipperary beat them.

A true result, or a pre-League puzzler? Take your pick.

Both used the competitions to dig deep into their loose ended panel to give younger players a chance. Both operated off squads that were over 40-strong, apparently.

The Cats gave 28 players a run in the matches against DIT, Galway and Dublin. A 100% win rate was ideal.

Even better, none of the new men failed the test. A number of the long serving players who were used, namely Shefflin, Tommy Walsh, Eoin Larkin, Aidan Fogarty, Colin Fennelly and so on showed they were still up for the battle and that they ain’t going to hand over the jersey to anyone.

It is razor sharp competition - exactly what manager Brian Cody and fellow selectors, Michael Dempsey, Derek Lyng and James McGarry would want.

It has been the same in Clare. They played Limerick, UCC and Tipperary. In the opening tie, one member of the All-Ireland team was used. Ten got a run in the second round, and the figure was in the same region against Tipp.

Like Kilkenny, the Banner County have had players involved with university and colleges sides in the Fitzgibbon Cup, so everyone has been getting hurling.

Manager Davy Fitzgerald has been playing down the importance of this clash, and has gone on record to state that Clare are about six weeks behind in their preparations for the season.

Their end of year holiday involved a 10-day break in Cancun, Mexico and a stop off in New York on the way home.

While the MacCarthy Cup win was marked by the expected celebrations, there was nothing over the top, we were assured.

Sixteen years (1997-2013) divided Clare’s All-Ireland wins, but a young, fast, skilful and hungry combination of athletes liked what they earned in Croke Park last September. The determination is there to build on it.

There are seven or eight of last year’s under-21 team pushing hard to make Fitzgerald’s latest squad. With eight All-Stars in the team - and five others were nominated - Clare have rarely if ever had such hurling riches.

A lot of Clare followers see this clash with Kilkenny as a big test. The Cats, THE team of the past decade, continue to cast a long and haunting shadow over the game.

Absolutely understandable with the likes of Henry Shefflin (9 All-Ireland wins), Eoin Larkin (6), J.J. Delaney (8), Michael Fennelly (6), Aidan Fogarty (7), Brian Hogan (6), Michael Rice (6), Jackie Tyrrell (7) and Tommy Walsh (8) still involved and as eager as ever to drive on.

Ordinary competitors wouldn’t accumulate such a stash. We have been blessed, and continue to be blessed, to be witness to some of the best!

A win or defeat on Sunday won’t make or break the season for either county, big and all as the attraction might be. Remember, Kilkenny lost their two opening League matches last year and still won the competition.

Much about Sunday’s clash is about laying down a marker for the season! Kilkenny are in mean mood! They want a win.