Clare's attacking leader, Galway's defensive anchor and their key Croke Park battle

John Conlon and Daithi Burke will be influential figures in Croke Park this evening.

Daithi Burke and John Conlon in opposition in 2016 in Thurles.
Daithi Burke and John Conlon in opposition in 2016 in Thurles.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

AIN 2009 WHEN Clare made their U21 hurling breakthrough in Croke Park, John Conlon was their shining light.

He swept over 0-3 from play in that final win over Kilkenny and was crowned as man-of-the-match afterwards as proof of his endeavours.

A week before that boost for the Banner, Daithi Burke was entering the All-Ireland winners enclosure for the first time. A teenager anchoring the Galway rearguard as collected another minor hurling crown.

Four years on and the pair could both reflect on All-Ireland triumphs at the close of the 2013 season. Conlon excelling on the most notable hurling platform as Clare prevailed after a thrilling two-game September senior saga against Cork.

Earlier that year in May, Burke had also enjoyed an All-Ireland success with Cork on the receiving end. He showcased his football talents that evening in the Gaelic Grounds, making a key contribution at midfield to the county’s U21 success.

This evening at Croke Park the duo seem likely to cross paths. Conlon trotting in before throw-in to the edge of the square, ready to perform as the focal point of the Clare attacking moves. Burke is the most plausible Galway candidate to be detailed to stand next to the Clonlara man at the start, ready to watch him closely for the next 70-odd minutes and wire into the physical confrontations that will ensue.

John Conlon celebrates after the game John Conlon celebrates Clare's 2013 All-Ireland U21 final victory. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Of course it’s too simplistic to distil this All-Ireland hurling semi-final down to this single duel. But sometimes there is a sense that a match-up can have an inordinate influence in shaping a game. The clash of Conlon and Burke carries great potential.

Since the outset of 2014, the duo’s fortunes have contrasted sharply. For Burke there has been constant success. He has continued to successfully juggle club football commitments with county hurling commitments. In 2015 he was a victor on St Patrick’s Day with Corofin, last March he was a champion at that stage once more.

And Burke isn’t a token figure in the Corofin ranks, he is a football midfielder of serious substance. Take his role in that mesmerising second goal they netted against Nemo Rangers. It was Burke who won the ball back after seizing a stray pass in the 21st minute and in the team move that ensued before Mike Farragher raised a green flag in front of Hill 16, Burke was involved on five occasions.

And the Turloughmore hurling club man has been part of days for Galway to savour. League and Leinster successes the precursor to that golden moment in Croke Park last September. Another Leinster win earlier this month has put them on course for a successful All-Ireland defence.

Standing in Galway’s path is a Clare team who are visiting Croke Park after a five-year absence. It is the form of Conlon that has been integral to their development this summer.

The wing-forward in 2013 when they reigned supreme and the wing-forward when they last faced Galway in championship in 2016, is now the full-forward they base so much of their hopes around.

1-22 from six games illustrates Conlon’s impact in 2018. He wreaked havoc early on in the Munster final and Cork managing to get to grips with him was a key factor in their renaissance.

Colm Spillane and John Conlon John Conlon up against Cork's Colm Spillane in the Munster final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“He has to be in the hat anyway when you’re considering nominations for Hurler of the Year,” says Clare’s 2013 All-Ireland winning captain Pat Donnellan.

“John has been excellent, extremely hard-working and a fantastic fella to have around the group. I think when John is on form physically, he’s very, very hard to mark.

“Extremely fit and is very direct, he knows where the goal is and I think he’s really benefiting from playing in the full-forward role this year. Playing centrally gives him a bit more chance to be in the play the whole time, rather than staying in and out when you’re out on the wing or covering the miles.

“I think a fella like him is better when he’s in the game more. He’s on form this year and he’s been one of the talisman for Clare so far.”

Burke has grown into a talismanic force for Galway. Think back to 2015 and their win in a classic against Tipperary, achieved despite Seamus Callanan being in rampaging, scoring form. Galway tried John Hanbury and Padraig Mannion at full-back that day but still emerged with a victory before losing out in the final to Kilkenny.

By the following summer, Micheál Donoghue had installed Burke as his defensive lynchpin. He’s been their rock at number three since, a towering figure of strength and assurance.

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Daithi Burke with Tj Reid Daithi Burke in action against Kilkenny's TJ Reid. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“It’d be a huge battle between him and Daithi Burke,” admits Donnellan.

“You always have to meet the physical challenge but John’s a fantastic hurler aside from that. As a forward he needs to be almost getting away from the fact that everything I need to do here needs to be shouldering and jostling and turning lads upside down.

“If he comes out of the game, scoring a goal and four or five points, or setting up four or five points, then that’s his job done regardless of how many shoulder he might hit.

“Daithi Burke and Gearoid McInerney are two strong lads down the middle. I think Clare will be targeting them, making sure they’re under pressure. They want to make sure they’re putting them on the backfoot and they’re not letting them dominate by putting balls down on top of them or holding the centre. The Clare forwards will need to move them around a bit.”

Burke’s personal form has been recognised with All-Star awards for the last three seasons. Conlon looks in pole position to land his first individual accolade this autumn.

One will be partaking in next month’s All-Ireland showpiece, Clare’s attacking leader or Galway’s defensive anchor.

Their battle will be a key one to observe in Croke Park this evening.

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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