An 18 month run that was festooned with garlands marking excellence on the local, provincial and national stages came to an end for Clara.
And it was a case of ‘just about’ as newcomers to this level, Clara, pushed vastly experienced Oulart the Ballagh (Wexford) all the way before being beaten by points from the magnificent Garrett Sinnott (2) and sub Conor O’Leary between the 59th and 61st minutes of a high quality Leinster club senior hurling championship quarter-final at Nowlan Park on Sunday.
“I am very disappointed,” admitted Clara manager, Michael Purcell afterwards. “I felt going into the game that we had a good
chance. Everyone was fully committed. We gave it a go. Having just one week to prepare was a huge disappointment.
“Even mentally it is very difficult to deal with what happened last week. To come back ready to go to war this week was too much. We didn’t hurl that well. We lost our shape. We weren’t finding each other with the ball.
“Oulart played better than us. We completely lost our shape for the closing seven or eight minutes, even before they got their three points. We were living off scraps. I don’t want to sound critical. The players were super again.
“Eventhough things went against us they battled hard. They gave everything. It was still a remarkable year, 18 months for the players. The rest won’t do them any harm.”
Clara suggested they might drive on when they slipped 0-5 to 0-1 clear after seven minutes. This was their best spell. Lester Ryan and Jack Langton owned midfield. The trio right behind them were solid, and up front Keith Hogan and the sprinter-like Liam Ryan looked capable of making major gains.
Oulart play a well rehearsed possession game, knocking the ball around before making space for the eventual striker, and they got it going as the half wore on. Thier shooting, however, wasn’t always the best as five wides in the opening quarter would suggest, but.....
By the 27th minute the visitors were back level (0-7 each). Even more central to their cause, their half-back line of Conor Goff, Paul Roche and Lar Prendergast totally over-shadowed their opposites by this time. A move typical of their play won them the lead for the first time going into the break. Goalie Ben O’Connor pinged a quick puck-out to a free David Redmond almost on midfield.
The latter’s shot at the city end goal was as straight as an arrow. Half-time: Oulart 0-8, Clara 0-7.
Liam Ryan wiped out the divide within a minute of the restart, but Oulart, with Sinnott roving, gained a firm grip on things again. Twice they worked up a lead of four points during what was a trying quarter for Clara. Twice minors from Conor Phelan were vital ‘keep them in the game’ scores for the losers.
For no particular reason, things turned for Clara afterwards. Lester Ryan started a move that saw sub Stephen Quinlan fire in a shot at goal which ’keeper, O’Connor did well to save, but he couldn’t control the sliotar. It ran loose. Chris Bolger buried it in the net.
Four minutes on a huge ball out of defence by David Langton was fielded on the endline, just to the right of goal by James Nolan, despite intense pressure by a defender. Under sever pressure, and with the goalie racing off his line to narrow the angle, Nolan flicked the ball in the net.
Clara were 2-11 to 0-14 ahead. Their earlier troubles seemed far away.
In a scoring sense the close 14 minutes belonged to determined, patient Oulart, who continued with their ‘keep possession at all costs’ game. They rarely sent a stray pass. Their shooting was almost impeccable as a pair of points from Mythen and than one from a 65 by Rory Jacob earned them parity in the 57th minute (2-11 to 0-17).
The scoring script was completed by Sinnott (2) and O’Leary. Their efforts earned a place in the semi-finals against defending champions, Kilcormac Killoughey (Offaly).
“We had to win that game twice,” suggested Oulart manager, Martin Storey when paying tribute to Clara and highlighting their two strong periods during the match. “We are delighted to win. We have beaten three Kilkenny teams in successive years, but we have won nothing in Leinster. That’s hard to take.”
The Kilkenny champions went down battling to the last. Lester Ryan was a huge performer again, a bundle of energy and hurling might in the middle of the park. David Langton, Conor Phelan and Liam Ryan had wonderful moments too.
Likewise the entire defence. The full-back line was wonderful against high quality opposition. Tom Ryan, John Phelan and Sean O’Shea will very rarely during their careers play as much good hurling and finishing on the losing side.
And had Clara won in a tight finish, goalie Killian Phelan would surely have been the hero. He saved a shot from David Redmond in the 12th minute that was going over the bar. In the 52nd minute he did better, blocking a flicked, close range effort from Nicky Kirwan.
Typical of the day for Clara - good, but just not good enough!
Scorers: Oulart the Ballagh - Garrett Sinnott (0-6); Des Mythen (0-4); Nicky Kirwan (0-4, frees); Rory Jacob (0-3, one 65); David Redmond (0-2); Conor O’Leary (0-1). Clara - Keith Hogan (0-4, three frees); Liam Ryan (0-3); James Nolan, Chris Bolger (1-0 each); Lester Ryan, Conor Phelan (0-2 each).
Clara - Killian Phelan, Tom Ryan, John Phelan, Sean O’Shea, Neal Prendergast, Shane Prendergast, David Langton, Lester Ryan, Jack Langton, Conor Phelan, Keith Hogan, Liam Ryan, Austin Murphy, James Nolan, Ciaran Prendergast. Subs - Chris Bolger for A. Murphy 33rd min; Stephen Quinlan for C. Prendergast 40th min; Conor O’Shea for J. Nolan 48th min.
Oulart the Ballagh - Ben O’Connor, Denis Morton, Keith Rossiter, Barry Kehoe, Conor Goff, Paul Roche, Lar Prendergast, Shaun Murphy, Michael Jacob, Darren Nolan, Des Mythen, David Redmond, Rory Jacob, Garrett Sinnott, Nicky Kirwan. Subs - Conor O’Leary for Nolan 42nd min; Peter Murphy for Kirwan 57th min.
Referee - James McGrath (Westmeath).