Busy, busy Clare all but chased Kilkenny out of the Allianz National Hurling League.
The Banner County extended their exciting run to 11 games unbeaten this season when they bossed this semi-final in Thurles.
“That was a good win, and we are very happy with our level of performance,” insisted Clare manager, Davy Fitzgerald after Sunday’s set-to.
Kilkenny boss, Brian Cody didn’t attempt to dress-up the situation, and admitted: “The better team won.”
However, the Cats will be far from happy with their showing when they pick the performance apart forensically, as they are sure to do before the start of the Leinster championship.
Basically they were dragged and pulled in all directions and hustled into errors, and ultimately submission.
While Clare were thrilled to score 4-22 against the All-Ireland champions, Kilkenny will ask serious questions as to how it happened.
That is even bearing in mind that such seasoned campaigners as Paul Murphy, Michael and Colin Fennelly, Conor Fogarty and Eoin Larkin were missing through injury, and in the case of the latter, a simple lack of hurling action.
Clare set the pace of the game with their free running game, backed up by the employment of a sweeper in defence.
They are good at this game, and the opposition never looked at ease trying to take the sting out of Clare’s high energy, high tempo game.
The winners took the lead in the fifth minute with a point from first half gold digger, Aaron Cunningham, who hit half-time with a massive 2-3 in the bank after starting around the edge of the Kilkenny square.
His opening point put Clare 0-2 to 0-1 in front. When Cunningham claimed two goals between the 15th and 25th minutes, and John Conlon added a third, the match was already running away from the Cats, who found themselves 0-7 to 3-9 behind.
Twice the gap reached a yawning 12 points (3-12 to 0-9 and 3-13 to 0-10), and it was only for a brief period after the latter point was reached that Kilkenny showed seriously stiff opposition.
They showed real grit, an annoyance even, as they out-gunned Clare by 2-7 to 1-5 between the 37th and 59th minutes which was their best period of the match, but then Clare bagged back-to-back points through Colm Galvin, after a sublime delivery from No. 3 Cian Dillon, and sub Cathal O’Connell to take the sting out of their opponents drive.
Pádraig Walsh was utterly defiant at all times for the losers. He was their most industrious and productive performer, the one player who could look back and say ‘there was no more I could do’.
Lester Ryan gave his all too, and T.J. Reid, Richie Hogan and Walter Walsh had fine moments, but the overall power of Clare’s hurling was simply too much.
Kilkenny have a bit of thinking to do before the championship, and the thing is, where to start.
Okay, it was obvious that errors were made in the face of aerial raids which led to Clare’s first half goal. Ball wasn’t dealt with smartly and when it broke around the square it was belted home.
Was the real problem here, or was it deeper, from the point of delivery? And are they going to have a look at how they set up their defence when the opposition try to employ one strong, mobile attacker in front of their goal?
Kilkenny were crucified on the opposing ’40’ and around midfield during most of the opening period, and with the defence being hit by Clare runners breaking at pace from all quarters, it was hard to cope.
It cannot be forgotten that aerial raids, and a lone attacker on the edge of the square, caused problems and led to concessions against Cork in Pairc Ui Rinn too!
Basically, Clare did a Kilkenny on Kilkenny at times, especially when closing down the man in possession and forcing errors.
Overall, it has to be admitted, the League worked out well for Kilkenny, with a lot of players getting game time. But the closing act won’t have satisfied, even bearing in mind the loss of talent through injuries.
After the opening point from Cunningham, Clare hit the opposition again through Conor McGrath (65), Padraic Collins, Cunningham again and Conor Cleary, after a quick puck-out, to shoot 0-6 to 0-2 clear after 12 minutes.
Buckley and Kevin Kelly combined for the latter to shoot a nice point on the quarter hour before Clare snapped up their first goal.
The busy, busy Colin Galvin delivery a high ball in from the right wing. The ’keeper came off his line smartly and contested in the air with two, a forward and defender, on the edge of his area. The ball broke and fell to the round.
Galvin was fastest to react. Goal!
Cunningham put the second chance away in the 19th minute after corner-back, Paul Flanagan, put the ball in the danger area (2-7 to 0-5).
Kilkenny didn’t threatened much at the other end, although T.J. Reid had an effort from close range body blocked and Richie Hogan had a flicked effort saved.
Anyway, Clare roared on. When David Fitzgerald lofted in a high ball in the 25th minute it wasn’t dealt with well and Cunningham claimed his second goal.
Those efforts helped them into a strong interval lead of 3-12 to 0-10.
Conor McGrath added a minor shortly after the rest, and after Padraig Walsh and Conor McGrath swapped scores, the losers enjoyed their best period in the game.
It started with T.J. Reid sneaking a goal from a cheeky 20 metre free following a foul on John Power (3-14 to 1-11).
Clare were mean in the tackle, not allowing anyone any room, and they didn’t surrender ground easily. Reid slipped over another point and Buckley landed an exciting one after running on at pace to a Reid pass.
An exchange followed before Clare goaled again, this time Conor McGrath rifling a fantastic shot to the top left corner of the Kilkenny net (4-16 to 1-14).
That quality strike looked like a killer blow, and especially so when sub Tony Kelly added two minors in quick succession (4-18 to 1-14).
The next score, in the 52nd minute, was a Kilkenny goal from Jonjo Farrell, who won a quick delivery from midfield by Lester Ryan, before finishing from close range.
A pair of points from T.J. Reid left Kilkenny with some hope, albeit a long shot.
Their hopes were dashed quickly with first Galvin and then O’Connell grabbing points for Clare.
There was a rush of three scores in injury time and John Power brought a fine save from Clare goalie, Patrick Kelly but the ticket into the final against Waterford was already won, and lost.
This was impressive stuff from Division IB champions, Clare, with David Reidy my man of the match, although Colm Galvin, Cian Dillon, Brendan Bugler, David Fitzgerald, John Conlon, Aaron Cunningham, Conor McGrath and Patrick O’Connor all did very well too.