Challenge matches are nothing to get worked up about, but they do serve a useful purpose, most especially in the run up to the championship.
It was with exactly that on the agenda that this clash of champions, Clare (All-Ireland) and Kilkenny (National League), aroused such interest because both are winding up towards the big Summer competitions in Munster and Leinster.
Winning or losing wasn’t what this contest on Sunday was all about. It had more to do with getting the players tuned in and trying out systems and permutations.
“That was a useful work-out,” admitted Kilkenny manager, Brian Cody afterwards. “Clare certainly work you hard and make you think. It was a good match to get at a good time.”
All in the James Stephens club did their bit and the opening of their expansive and wonderfully planned new €1.2-million facility on the Kells Road was a triumph for teamwork and co-operation. Everything went off without a hitch.
The Village people put their best foot forward as they marched proudly into an exciting new era for the club.
The game? Yes, it was a most interesting and engaging affair, even if it did lack real cut and thrust. This was a challenge, and it was played in the spirit of a friendly. The ball was drilled around in a ‘keep possession’ approach, and few body rattling challenges of the sort that are common place in the championship and can arouse such passions in fans were witnessed.
Clare and the style they employ under their manager, Davy Fitzgerald - a man with what appears to be countless ideas on how the game might be played - generate huge curiosity. You see, no one knows exactly how they might play on any given day, and that is part of the beauty of their appeal.
In this case they played No. 9 Nicky O’Connell as an extra defender for a lot of the time. He was sited between the full and half-back lines, and he rattled off the script to perfection. Further up the field Clare often employed one man on the full-forward line, with four and sometimes five lined up across the opposing ‘40’.
If there is a Barcelona-like open, free and fluid style of playing hurling, then Clare are the nearest example. It is interesting, that’s for sure.
They work on engineering space all over the place and handy angles for shooting; then they have various runners pouring through gaps at pace that you could see them chalking up big scores when in full flight.
This hurling Summer ain’t going to be dull with Clare around!
Sunday gave us an insight too into how close in frees are going to be taken/used by teams during the championship. The Anthony Nash ‘lift, throw the ball forward, chase and strike’ routine will be the norm, I would expect.
T.J. Reid employed that style when taking two 20-metre frees. The first produced a straight goal. The second shot was stopped, but the ball was scrambled into the net.
Clare sub, Tony Kelly, did exactly the same with a 20-metre free at the death. However, in his case he threw the ball so far forward he was virtually on the ‘14’ when caman and sliotar made contact. The result? A goal!
One remembers Banner manager, Davy Fitzgerald, being questioned on this issue on the pitch in Ennis after the opening National League game between the counties. He expressed some concern about the dangers faced by the would be blockers in such situations. His well chosen words fell on deaf ears.
Now the ‘lift, throw and chase’ close in free routine is, apparently, set to become common currency. Next we will have hurleys like golf sticks, with made to measure ones for the taking of close in frees.
Are the GAA happy with this? A sliotar flying at 100mph can do damage - if the ball struck a man in the throat under the face guard of the helmet; if it struck him spot on in the heart; if it struck him lower down.
Challenge games don’t throw up serious issues! Who said that?
Kilkenny gave game time to 20 players. Tommy Walsh reappeared and made the full 70 minutes. He played well. Michael Rice had his first outing in the colours since last year’s championship. He scored a goal, prodding home the rebounding ball after a close in free by T.J. Reid was blocked out.
The Cats won the League and it appeared they hadn’t settled on a centre-back. Jackie Tyrrell was in the No. 6 position this time, as he was in the League final against Tipperary. Is that a hint?
The James Stephens man played well here. It might not be easy to shift him, but you can be sure the competition will be hot at training during the next few weeks.
The manicured pitch with the white lines beaming against the lush green grass, provided a perfect setting for the game, even if the constant soft rain tried to be a real spoilsport. The match was barely two minutes old when Jonjo Farrell was tumbled in front of goal. T.J. Reid took full advantage of the ‘lift, throw and chase’ routine. Goal!
The mood was set for the good size home crowd.
T.J. reached half-time with 1-4 in his scoring account. Clare free taker, Colin Ryan had 0-5. The divide at the break was 1-9 to 0-10 in favour of the Cats, who also ran up 10 wides.
There were two chances of goals. In the first instance Clare goalie, Patrick Kelly, brought off a good save from a ground shot by Colin Fennelly, at the expense of a 65. The same pair went eye-to-eye in the 19th minute again, with Kelly holding his ground once more.
The visitors opened the new half smartly. Early points from the flying Colin Galvin and Podge Collins brought them back level. Reid and Ryan swopped points twice after that, leaving the teams still together, this time at 1-11 to 0-14 as they game passed the 46th minute mark.
When Reid regained the lead for Kilkenny 90 seconds further on, they made the rest of the journey home in front. The biggest gap opened five minutes from the end. A defender was pulled up for over carrying the ball. It was a 20-metre shot. Reid went for broke. The effort was saved, but Michael Rice followed up and touched the ball home (2-18 to 0-17).
When a home defender fouled the ball with time almost up, Clare were awarded a 20-metre free right in front of the goal. Tony Kelly stood back and had a run up to the lift. His charge took him to the ‘14’ before the strike was made. Goal! That was the last strike of the match.
Expect many more such moments during the upcoming championship.
The good Kilkenny performers were led by T.J. Reid, the county’s most valuable player at the moment; Lester Ryan, who is pushing himself back into the picture big time for the championship; Jackie Tyrrell, Colin Fennelly, Tommy and Michael Walsh.
Scorers: Kilkenny - T.J. Reid (1-10, 1-6 frees); Michael Rice (1-0); Lester Ryan, Colin Fennelly, Aidan Fogarty (0-2 each); Eoin Larkin, Jonjo Farrell (0-1 each). Clare - Colin Ryan (0-9, seven frees); Colin Galvin (0-4); Tony Kelly (1-0, free); Paul Flanagan, John Conlon, Podge Collins, Darach Honan (0-1 each).
Kilkenny - David Herity, Conor Fogarty, Michael Walsh, Paul Murphy, Tommy Walsh, Jackie Tyrrell, Kieran Joyce, Michael Fennelly, Lester Ryan, Walter Walsh, Colin Fennelly, T.J. Reid, Aidan Fogarty, Jonjo Farrell, Eoin Larkin. Subs - Padraig Walsh for Fennelly (inj); Cillian Buckley for Joyce; Joey Holden for P. Murphy; Michael Rice for W. Walsh; Tomas Kehoe for C. Fogarty.
Clare - Patrick Kelly, Domhnall O’Donovan, David McInerney, Jack Browne, Seadhna Morey, Brendan Bugler, Paul Flanagan, Colin Galvin, Nicky O’Connell, John Conlon, Colin Ryan, Cathal Malone, Podge Collins, Darach Honan, Donal Reidy. Subs - Conor Ryan for Bugler; Tony Kelly for D. Reidy; Conor McGrath for D. Honan; Sean Collins for C. Galvin; Cathal McInerney for S. Morey.
Referee - Dickie Murphy (Wexford).
PS - Well done to the army of volunteers James Stephens had on duty, manning all points. Everything was done with military precision.