A TOWERING performance saw Clare dash Kilkenny’s hopes of under-21 All-Ireland glory, writes Trevor Spillane.
The Cats gave their all but it wasn’t enough to earn the spoils as a faster, sharper Banner shone under the floodlights at Semple Stadium on Saturday evening.
The port-mortem often throws up the question about where the game went wrong. Admittedly, a meagre haul of four second half points in contrast to Clare’s 1-10 was a factor, but it was a frustrating end to a game in which the Cats had worked hard to turn things their way.
Given that their attack had yielded a staggering 11-60 en route to the final, seeing their scoring potential dry up so quickly hurt Kilkenny after the restart. It stung the Leinster champions, especially as they had made a superb recovery in the opening half, coming from six points down to lead a fired-up Clare by three at half-time - and that was against the wind.
It was in the third quarter that their victory plans began to unravel. Boosted by a strong defence which began to impose itself on the game more and more, Clare slowly but surely edging their way into pole position.
Much of their success lay in the form of their full-forward line (they hit 2-11 of their side’s 2-17 tally) and, in particular, the double threat of Cathal McInerney and Cathal O’Connell. Kilkenny had trouble shackling the two corner men, who ran at their men with menace. With Kilkenny forced to commit fouls O’Connell grabbed three points inside eight second half minutes (two from frees), the last of which saw Clare creep back in front (1-11 to 2-7).
Although Ger Aylward had the Cats back on level terms with a 40th minute point - their first score of the new half (and only one from play) - a devastating six-minute spell left Clare charging towards their second Cross of Cashel Cup in four seasons.
Seconds after conceding the leveller Clare were back in lead, Cathal McInerney picking off Tony Kelly’s pass to split the Killinane End posts.
Worse was to follow for Kilkenny. Clare, who had strong shouts for a penalty turned down following a foul on McInerney by Cats ’keeper Dylan Walsh, battled on to win possession when O’Connell stopped Joe Lyng on the half-back line. The sliotar was worked on to Padraic Collins, who teed up Conor McGrath to rifle home from close range.
Clare were rampant once more and quickly made their dominance count. Two points inside 60 seconds from McGrath and Shane Golden, the latter after a lengthy solo from the midfielder, left the Munster men six clear again with less than a quarter of the game to play (2-14 to 2-8).
The roar from the large Clare crowd at the start of the game left people in no doubt that the Banner had travelled to Thurles full of expectation. The team, who boasted eight senior hurlers in their starting 15, thrilled their supporters with a blistering start that threatened to blow Kilkenny out of the water.
The Cats were left rubbing their eyes in disbelief as, within eight minutes of throw-in, they were six points down. Although captain Kevin Kelly gave them the lead within 30 seconds the Cats weren’t ahead for long - Cathal McInerney, Cathal O’Connell and a fine score from galloping wing-back Seadna Morey saw Clare give their fans an early sign of their capabilities.
The gap was back to the bare minimum when Geoff Brennan’s good vision picked out Padraig Walsh to tack on a point, but Clare weren’t about to slacken off. Conor McGrath did well to catch Tony Kelly’s seventh minute cut and get on the inside track of full-back Willie Phelan. A quick hand-pass sent Cathal O’Connell speeding towards goal, the corner-forward pausing only to draw Dylan Walsh from his line before coolly drilling a low shot in the bottom right corner of the Kilkenny net.
The Cats had trouble shackling the opposition, who combined speed on the wings with great strength as they drove through the middle. Midfielder Colm Galvin stretched their lead, twisting this way and that before splitting the posts from distance. Wing-back Patrick O’Connor did even better, winning possession on his own 65 and storming upfield to land a point from Kilkenny territory just a few seconds later.
It would have been easy for Kilkenny to roll over at that stage, but they responded to the challenge. A Kelly free got them going as did Walter Walsh, who drove down the right wing towards the corner and grabbed a point from the tightest of angles.
Clare weren’t about to let their early advantage go without a fight. Cathal McInerney made an instant reply from Ronan Taaffe’s booming puck-out but more could have followed - Tony Kelly had a great chance to raise the green flag on 13 minutes when he cut in from the left flank and aimed a low shot beyond Dylan Walsh, but the sliotar screamed past the netminder’s left post.
Kilkenny raised their game after that let-off, creeping back into contention as the half wore on. They strung three points together, Walter Walsh getting the pick of the bunch but only after Taaffe tipped the Tullogher man’s stinging 18th minute shot over his crossbar.
Although they trailed by three points after another O’Connell free Kilkenny still had every reason to be happy with their ever-improving performance. They had fought their way back from six points down and battled a strong, tricky breeze in the process. However, they were about to turn the game on its head.
With three minutes left in the half, the Cats sliced Clare wide open with a neat one-two. John Power drew his side level when, after being fouled by defenders David McInerney and Killian Ryan, he smashed an unstoppable penalty high into the roof of the net.
Clare looked stunned. They could, and should, have been reduced to 14 men after Shane Golden’s dangerous pull on Ollie Walsh - somehow Golden escaped with a yellow, while Walsh’s injury forced him out of the game early in the second half - but after doing most of the hurling they ended up going in three points down at the break.
Ger Aylward did the damage, shaking off his marker to latch on to a long Power injury-time delivery and flick it hockey-style past Taaffe.
The Cats were purring now. Better still, they were in control and purring (2-7 to 1-7).
Kilkenny were buoyed up coming out for the second half, but Clare worked hard to take the wind out of their sails. They had it all to do again after Clare’s high-scoring third quarter, but a repeat performance wasn’t in the Cats.
A Kevin Kelly free on 47 minutes (their first of the second half - Clare had seven by that stage) chipped a point off the deficit, but not for long. Cathal O’Connell replied with a like score, sending loud cheers round Semple.
Although there was still 10 minutes to play, Clare would not let it slip now. Patrick O’Connor made sure of that, snuffing out a last-ditch goal chance when he intercepted John Power’s teasing pass before Ger Aylward could swat it home.
In attack Cathal O’Connell also had an opportunity to bag another three-pointer but was denied by a fine save from Dylan Walsh. That would have been the final nail in Kilkenny’s coffin but Clare didn’t need to hammer it in, holding on for the final whistle as they completed a memorable night.
Kilkenny - D. Walsh (Thomastown), J. Corcoran (John Lockes), W. Phelan (Dunnamaggin), B. Kennedy (St Lachtain’s), L. Harney (Kilmacow), R. Doyle (Barrow Rangers), J. Lyng (Rower-Inistioge), G. Brennan (St Patrick’s), O. Walsh (Dicksboro), K. Kelly (St Patrick’s, capt), P. Walsh (Tullaroan), C. Buckley (Dicksboro), W. Walsh (Tullogher-Rosbercon), J. Power (Carrickshock), G. Aylward (Glenmore). Subs: Martin Gaffney (Dicksboro) for O. Walsh, 37 mins; Cathal Kenny (Barrow Rangers) for P. Walsh, 55 mins.
Clare - R. Taaffe, P. Flanagan, D. McInerney, K. Ryan, P. O’Connor, C. Ryan, S. Morey, C. Galvin, S. Golden, T. Kelly, P. Collins, A. Cunningham, C. McInerney, C. McGrath, C. O’Connell. Subs: P. Duggan for Cunningham, 49 mins; N. Arthur for Collins, 59 mins.
Referee - D. Kirwan (Cork).
Attendance - 9,250
Frees - Kilkenny 11 (7+4); Clare 15 (5+10).
Wides - Kilkenny 3 (2+1); Clare 10 (7+3).
Yellow cards - Kilkenny: Brian Kennedy. Clare: Patrick O’Connor, Shane Golden, Cathal O’Connell.