A meeting of champions, league and championship, promised so much, but it delivered a lot less than was expected when Clara eased into the semi-finals.
Eased? Yes! O’Loughlin Gaels failed to find the constant tempo their earlier form had suggested was there. But for two goals during the closing six minute, the second a scrambled effort in injury-time, they would have been well beaten in this senior hurling championship quarter-final in windy Nowlan Park on Saturday.
So championship kings, Clara, advanced without playing particularly well. However, they showed that even on an average day they have oodles of quality to fall back on. An ability to roll up the sleeves and work through tough times served Clara well here.
“I suppose you could say we ground out the result,” was the way selector, Nicky Cashin chose to sum up Clara’s effort. “With the weather so bad over the last few days we knew the pitch would be heavy. The conditions were difficult. O’Loughlin’s are a very, very good team so all things considered it was never going to be easy.
“We are in the semi-finals, which is nice. That is a good place to be. We have a break next week. We had three or four injuries coming into this game and our physio did marvellous work to get the players on the field.
“The recovery time now will be good. We will have to use it. Every team needs time to freshen up. The way the All-Ireland ran on we all knew the championship was going to be condensed into a short period. The clubs are doing their best trying to get teams ready, but it is very difficult.
“Today’s effort will be no good unless we drive on. Second best is no good to us after winning last year. You want to defend your title.
“We had a tough game against James Stephens last week. It was the middle of the week before we got down from the high of winning. There was only a six day turn around. It can be hard to deal with that.”
The wind blew right down the field from the City end and favoured O’Loughlin’s from the start. Goals at either end of the half rocked them. While they had the opening point from Danny Loughnane after less than 20 seconds, they were taking the ball out of their net 40 seconds further on.
A darting run up the right wing by Liam Ryan ended with him shooting at the target from 35 metres. The full-back and full-forward tussled on the edge of the square. That, and perhaps the wind altered flight of the ball, deceived the goalie and the sliotar ended up in the net.
If O’Loughlin’s felt unlucky then, their bad run continued throughout. They shooting was awful. By the break they had 11 wides marked against them. And right on the rest - in the 31st minute - an attempted short puck-out went horribly wrong. The ball was intercepted by James Nolan, who still had a lot of work to do, but he planted the ball in the net.
Half-time: Clara 2-3, O’Loughlin’s 0-9.
A point from a free by Keith Hogan, whose influence grew as the contest unfolded, inflicted more damage on O’Loughlin’s immediately after the turn. A second score from Hogan, added to by James Nolan, upped the difference to 2-6 to 0-9 by the 39th minute.
Slowly Clara edged ahead with a terrific Lester Ryan - he was a great, deep lying link man between defence and attack - Hogan, Tom Ryan, Jack Langton, Liam Ryan and Neal Prendergast providing most of the power. When Liam Ryan scored in the 52nd minute they were 2-11 to 0-11 ahead, and motoring.
A foul on Martin Comerford earned the losers a 20 metre free in front of goal in the 54th minute. Goalie Stephen Murphy made the journey up the field to smash the ball into the net. The score lifted O’Loughlin’s and they were lively from there to the finish, but they never looked like potential winners.
SCORERS: Clara - Keith Hogan (0-7, five frees); Liam Ryan, James Nolan (1-2 each); Lester Ryan, Austin Murphy (0-1 each); Conor Phelan (0-1, free). O’Loughlin Gaels - Martin Comerford (1-1); Mark Bergin (0-4, three frees); Stephen Murphy (1-0, free); Mark Kelly (0-3); Danny Loughnane, Conor Bergin, Sammy Johnston, Paddy Deegan (0-1 each).
Clara - Killian Phelan, Dermot Nolan, Sean O’Shea, Conor O’Shea, Nel Prendergast, Tom Ryan, David Langton, Lester Ryan, Jack Langton, Conor Phelan, Keith Hogan, Liam Ryan, Chris Bolger, Austin Murphy, James Nolan. Subs - Ciaran Prendergast, Shane Prendergast, John Murphy.
O’Loughlin Gaels - Stephen Murphy, Anthony Forristal, Eoghan Grant, Eddie Kearns, Paddy Butler, Brian Hogan, Niall Bergin, Paddy Deegan, Mark Bergin, Martin Comerford, Jack Nolan, Sammy Johnston, Conor Bergin, Mark Kelly, Danny Loughnane. Sub - Davy Burke.
Referee - Sean O’Sullivan (Ballyhale Shamrocks).