I expected to witness an absorbing contest on Sunday between Clara and Carrickshock in the senior hurling final Nowlan Park.
The two best teams in Kilkenny had deservedly reached the final and the unique pairing suggested we would get a game of high tempo and passion.
For the most part the tie was unexciting with both sides appearing extremely nervous as they battled for the honour of champions.
It was only in the closing 10 minutes that the game came to life. On 50 minutes Carrickshock led when substitute Damien Walsh pointed. The ’Shock were in the driving seat but a disallowed goal one minute later was decisive.
Referee Sean Cleere was correct to disallow the goal as the Carrick’ attacker, Michael Rohan, had palmed the ball to the net, apparently. Rohan failed to spot his colleague Brian Donovan, who was in a better position to score.
It may not have seemed so at the time but that goal miss was crucial. It did appear that Carrickshock had overcome this setback when John Power pointed following a Pat Tennyson line ball.
When a game is so tight, it takes a player or two with raw courage to step up to the plate. When Kilkenny’s Player of the Year is announced I expect Lester Ryan’s name to be top of the list.
Ryan showed nerves of steel and commendable leadership when his side was awarded a 20-metre free in the 55th minute. That free was a marginal call and a major decision by referee Sean Cleere so close to the end.
Carrickshock, though, committed the cardinal error of questioning the referee’s decision and they ended up making it easier for Clara to score when the ball was brought forward. Two points separated the sides and with five minutes remaining a point for Clara would have brought the margin back to the minimum.
We expected Keith Hogan to take the free. Hogan had enjoyed a fruitful afternoon from placed balls. This time Lester Ryan stepped forward. The Kilkenny star drilled his ‘Anthony Nash style’ effort to the net.
Ryan’s decision took guts and bravery. It showed the sort of leadership which has been the hallmark of his performances all year, for Kilkenny and Clara.
Almost immediately one could sense the Carrickshock heads dropping. Their team cried out for leaders in the closing moments when there was time to save the tie. The momentum, though, was with Clara and another point from Lester Ryan, a mighty effort from 70 metres, had the winners’ supporters in raptures.
Richie Power (Carrickshock) and Chris Bolger (Clara) exchanged points but by then Sean Cleere was filling his lungs to blow the final whistle. This defeat will hit Carrickshock hard.
They wrestled control of the game by the 50th minute but two minutes later their momentum had evaporated with the disallowed goal. Three minutes later Clara was ahead, with one hand on the Tom Walsh Cup.
Carrickshock never got the performance from the team which saw them overcome the Shamrocks in the semi-final. For whatever reason too many players waited for things to happen.
With a few notable exceptions, the urgency, commitment and work rate of the team was sadly absent.
Clara’s character was tested in the closing 10 minutes. They got a lucky break when Carrickshock fluffed that goal scoring chance but once Lester Ryan scored his goal there was no way they were going to be deprived.
In a tight game which was very flat for long periods a two point winning margin suggests that either side might have won. That would be a fair assessment, but how often is a major final won by a side in which one player broadens his shoulders and makes the big call?
As far as I could see Lester Ryan looked for no instructions from the sideline. He took responsibility. That moment will forever be etched in Clara hurling folklore.
Well done to the Rower Inistioge on capturing the minor title. It was a brilliant achievement coming one week after their intermediate success. O’Loughlin Gaels are down, but there will be other days.