Ahead of the league semi-final, Oisin Langan looks at the potential of a future Kilkenny/Clare rivalry
"The greatest Gladiatorial match up in history" was Lex Luther's vision for Batman versus Superman. He may be a Supervillian and a visionary of a business man, but those comments made it clear that Lex has not followed hurling in the last few years as a potential Clare/Kilkenny rivalry has all the ingredients of a long running saga.
Much like Zak Snyder's Superman project, regardless of the quality, we'll still pay to see when Clare clash with Kilkenny. This pairing may not come with the history of the now one-way Kilkenny/Tipperary rivalry, but you get the feeling just one big encounter will set it up for a few years.
Over the years these two have had some good one-off battles including last year's relegation play–off, the replayed 2004 All Ireland quarter-final and the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final. However, there’s never been a sustained period of history where they've met on a regular basis with both at their peak.
2016 though could be the dawning of a new age.
Faith has conspired not to pair them when either is at their best - in 1995 and 1997 Kilkenny were a sleeping giant and by the time they eventually met in the 2002 All Ireland final, the Banner had faded and were brushed aside by the Cats. They came together again in the Championship in 2004 and then again 2006 with Kilkenny winning both, '04 after a replay.
Although those matches were close in 2006, barring the league final, Kilkenny were at the start a four in a row run while Clare were enjoying a last hoo-rah before the descent into the dark days of Division 2, Championship relegation play-offs and managerial disputes.
During a dark time at senior level, great work was done. Based on the Kilkenny model at underage, the Banner county began to bear fruit when they beat a Richie Hogan-led Kilkenny in the Bord Gais Energy under 21 All Ireland final in 2009.
That success was followed by success in 2012, when Walter Walsh bravely led the line for Kilkenny just weeks before his debut and a man of the match display in the All-Ireland final replay against Galway but came up short.
Clare would only have to wait another year for success at senior grade with a host of big names part of their accomplishments: David McInerney, Patrick O’Connor, Conor Ryan, Seadna Morey; Colm Galvin, Shane Golden; Tony Kelly, Podge Collins, Aaron Cunningham; Cathal McInerney and Conor McGrath.
Given their sustained level of success for many years, Kilkenny haven’t had to do plantations from their underage ranks into the senior side. Current stars Padraig Walsh, Cillian Buckley; Walter Walsh, John Power and Ger Aylward, however, were all part of the team that was beaten by Clare in the final of 2012.
Clare don’t carry the scars of being beaten down by Kilkenny which does count for something this weekend and if, as many suspect they will, they meet again later in the Championship this game could provide the spark for a hurling explosion.
Think Tipperary versus Kilkenny in the 2009 league final and the battles that followed.
Given the level of physicality and skill in both teams and the contrast of their management teams this is a game to crave for hurling fans.
Kilkenny bounced back from an early exit in 2013 to annex the next two All-Irelands, while Clare's young side have endured two tough injury-plagued seasons on their way back to form.
In that time, these two have met three times in the league with the score line standing at 2-1 to Kilkenny. All three were tight, tough and entertaining matches leaving supporters wondering what would happen if they met in the white heat of the Championship.
A history of defeat may be the focus put on some of Kilkenny’s opponents but for Clare, that doesn't seem to be an issue. The is damage done overall over the course of the last two years and if they can find their form again is the challenge for them.
Regardless of the result this Sunday it won’t be clear if Clare are back to 2013 levels until latter in the year.
One thing is for sure: a win and a league final appearance would do the Banners confidence no harm.
If you think the league doesn't matter or isn't relevant to what happens later in the season, just ask the Waterford players and management of last year!