Waterford defender Kevin Moran in action against Clare’s Tony Griffin in the 2006 National League. How the pair of them fare this Sunday could have a crucial bearing on the outcome.  Photo: Michael Kiely

Waterford defender Kevin Moran in action against Clare’s Tony Griffin in the 2006 National League. How the pair of them fare this Sunday could have a crucial bearing on the outcome. Photo: Michael Kiely

It’s might be little more than a sideshow ahead of Sunday’s Munster Championship opener, yet it’s difficult to avoid commenting on Justin McCarthy’s absence from last Thursday’s press conference at Horse and Jockey.

To give Croke Park due credit, great strides have been made in recent years to promote league and championship fixtures, thus increasing the sense of occasion about certain games in due course.

Managers may need a reporter’s dictaphone six inches from their chin like a hole in the head, but supporters/readers are interested in what the bainisteorí have to say.

Reporters are also increasingly dependant on press conferences like last Thursday’s to get access to players who are otherwise closeted away from notebook-wielding types between matches.

A report posted on the Hogan Stand website on Thursday stated: “It is understood that he (McCarthy) was only informed about the function by Waterford County Board officials late last night.”

While one must take the Waterford manager at his word, the press night in question was openly spoken of by journalists at Walsh Park during the Tom Cheasty Memorial Trophy game last Sunday week.

Clare manager Mike McNamara, in charge of a disquiet-free zone when one considers what emanated from the Banner camp last year, made the journey to mid-Tipp for last Thursday’s press conference.

But, in the absence of his Deise counterpart, McNamara declined to comment on this Sunday’s clash at the Gaelic Grounds (throw-in: 2pm).

It’s worth pointing out that Clare’s Barry Nugent and Philip Brennan were present at last Thursday’s press conference, as were the Deise’s Stephen Molumphy and Clinton Hennessy.

Said GAA spokesman Pat Doherty: “Michael did not take part because Justin was not there and he felt that since there was two Waterford players there that the event should be evened up.”

Hennessy, who showed the zippy Eddie Brennan a clean pair of heels at Walsh Park, said that everyone in white and blue has to step up to the plate this weekend.

“Ken (McGrath) will be a big loss but there is nobody irreplaceable,” said the Waterford goalkeeper.

“That’s why you have a panel of 30, you have to deal with these setbacks in any sport so we’ll deal with it and it gives somebody else a chance to have a go.

“We’ll all have to lift it but sometimes injuries can lift a whole panel because lads can sense a place up for grabs and everybody moves on a bit. Obviously we’ll have to step it up to replace Ken, but we’re well capable of doing that.”

Waterford minus Ken McGrath is the hurling equivalent of Clare minus Brian Lohan or Offaly minus Brian Whelahan.

Despite Hennessy’s assessment, as much as we’d like to say otherwise, there’s not a player on the Waterford panel who can equal Ken McGrath’s ability, consistency and influence.

And with the Mount Sion man’s name off the Deise team sheet for now, there’s little doubt that Clare’s confidence levels will have gone up a few notches this week.

“I’ve never missed a championship game,” said McGrath, who had keyhole surgery on his knee last Tuesday.

“I didn’t start in 2002 because of a shoulder injury but I came on in that match.” But should Waterford prevail, the centre-back ought to line out in a potential semi-final against Limerick.

“I’m disappointed because I was grand for fitness but the Sunday before we went to Portugal, I felt sharp pain in my knee during a challenge game against Cork.”

But with Eoin Kelly and Dan Shanahan both expected to win their fitness battles at the time of writing, and with Dave Bennett in laser-guided free taking form, Waterford ought to get the better of Clare.

But make no mistake, this is by no means an open and shut case and one senses that Clare will fancy their chances of catching an injury-hit Waterford side cold in Limerick.

Unlike McCarthy, McNamara has a relatively clean bill of health in his ranks and he’ll be delighted that veteran forward Niall Gilligan has recovered after being knocked out during a challenge against Offaly.

In fact, of players likely to start for Clare this Sunday, only Declan O’Rourke has been ruled out due to a broken finger sustained during the challenge win over Galway.

McNamara will be pleased that he’s had none of the off-field distractions that blighted his predecessor Tony Considine’s ill-fated period in charge at Cusack Park.

He’ll also be pleased that his team goes into the campaign with little or anything expected of them outside the county – a little like Limerick this time last year.

Waterford know only too well that they need to produce a big performance this Sunday to lay down a marker ahead of what will hopefully be a long and successful campaign.

And with the hype-machine completely and relievingly turned off on Suirside currently, the Munster champions, despite the absence of their talisman, should have enough to get past Clare. But it will not be easy. Waterford to win.