Clara's Matthew Kenny kicks the ball away during the senior hurling league clash with Graigue-Ballycallan on Sunday. Pic: Willie Dempsey
A steely performance, where they grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck from the off and didn’t let go, saw Clara drive their way into the senior hurling league final.
With Dicksboro falling to city rivals O’Loughlin’s, the group’s other men in maroon finished top of Section A - and booked their place in the championship quarter-finals - with a display that proved too much for Graigue-Ballycallan to contend with.
Clara looked good - really good - from the start to the finish as they dismantled the challenge of their opponents with clinical precision in Danesfort. From their short and snappy passing moves to the strength of their defence and threat of their forwards, they really impressed from the off.
Key to their success was the superb link-up play involving the likes of Lester Ryan, David Langton, Liam Ryan and Chris Bolger - but John Murphy was a cut above the rest. Murphy was here, there and everywhere, popping up to take possession and lay it off or to fire over a point to improve his side’s lead.
Clara made a smart start to the game and were three points to the good (0-4 to 0-1) inside the opening nine minutes.
Graigue’s only score had come from goalkeeper Ciaran Hoyne, who used the breeze at his back to help a lengthy free sail over the crossbar, but they overcame the sluggish opening to draw level by the 11th minute, Colum Prendiville drilling a fierce ground strike to the net, despite the tight angle from the left.
Rather than panic, Clara kept doing what they’d been doing from the off - simply playing their way out of trouble with a series of swift passes. With Lester Ryan and David Langton pulling the strings they raised the tempo again with Langton and John Murphy adding points.
Graigue weren’t out of the reckoning just yet - they needed the alert Hoyne to race from his line to sweep a loose ball away from the incoming James Nolan - but most of their energy was taken up in defence. The trio of Darragh, Eamonn and Cillian Egan were most impressive as they chased and harried every challenger, working overtime to stem the flow of ball coming towards their goal.
Ballycallan’s defensive work meant the game was delicately balanced until after the water break - level at 0-6 to 1-3 the stalemate continued into the final five minutes of the half, Sean Ryan (free), Billy Ryan and the galloping Aaron Brennan trading scores with Conor O’Shea (free), John Murphy and Matthew Kenny (free) to leave it level at 0-9 to 1-6.
However, once Clara clicked the intensity up to another level, they simply stepped away. Frees from O’Shea and Kenny gave them breathing room, to which Chris Bolger and Liam Ryan added minors. Graigue’s sole reply came from Sean Ryan (free) - they could have had another goal, but Ryan saw his 28th minute shot whistle past the post via a Clara deflection, while the resulting 65 drifted wide (half-time: Clara 0-13, Graigue-Ballycallan 1-7).
With the breeze now at their backs, Clara’s fast start to the second half propelled them towards victory. A run of four unanswered points certainly helped - Liam Ryan and Matthew Kenny (free) used the elements to guide long strikes over the bar - as they pushed their lead out to seven points by the 35th minute (0-17 to 1-7).
A recovery wasn’t beyond Graigue at that stage, but they seemed to have their hands full coping with a Clara offensive unit which now included full-back Jack Langton, who broke forward to mine two impressive points before the second water break (0-19 to 1-10).
Clara didn’t ease up in that final quarter. Led by Liam Ryan they kept firing over points, striking from all sorts of distances. John Murphy continued his dominance, winning plenty of loose ball before turning it into scores as they moved further and further away from their rivals.
Lester Ryan also added his name to the scoresheet, splitting the posts from distance, but saved his best piece of work for last.
Moving into a cluster of players to scrap for a ground ball, with his back to the Graigue posts Ryan drilled a ground shot through his legs - and those of a forest of opponents. The delivery was inch-perfect for Liam Ryan to gather and turn into a point, a score which brought a ripple of applause from supporters of both sides.
A little bit of skill at the end of a smooth hour’s hurling. It summed up Clara’s day to a tee!
Clara - Liam Ryan (0-8); John Murphy (0-6); Conor O’Shea (0-4, frees); Matt Kenny (0-3, frees); Jack Langton (0-2); Paul Cody, David Langton, Chris Bolger, Lester Ryan (0-1 each).
Graigue-Ballycallan - Sean Ryan (0-8, frees); Colum Prendiville (1-0); Bob Murphy (0-2, 0-1 free); Ciaran Hoyne (0-1, free); Conor Murphy, Aaron Brennan, Billy Ryan, Tom Dunphy, Jesse Roberts (0-1 each).
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