By Jim O'Sullivan
FOR no more than a ten-minute period at the start of the second half was there any uncertainty about Kilkenny adding the Guinness All-Ireland hurling championship to their League title.
True to tradition, almost, Brian Cody's team responded magnificently to a challenge greater than any they had faced in the first half, benefiting hugely from the first of two quick scores from Henry Shefflin.
And, almost as significantly as he had inspired them at the very start with a typically opportunist goal, D.J. Carey produced a classically executed point. More than anything else that happened before or afterwards, it emphasised the superiority of the new champions and once more his genius against a background of his absence for the Leinster campaign, a phenomenal contribution to the county's 27th title success.
First and foremost, it was a reward, richly deserved, for the selection and management of the team by Cody and his co-selectors. And, in its execution, it testified to the inherent quality of the side, with Carey just one of about five players who would have vied for the accolade of man-of-the-match.
Martin Comerford and Derek Lyng, in particular, were superb in their first final, Peter Barry and Henry Shefflin also played vital roles, but arguably the two real stars were corner-backs Michael Kavanagh and Philip Larkin with Kavanagh marginally the more consistent!
With Gerry Quinn making a notable return to the team, Clare paid the price for starting slowly as they had against Galway and Waterford. A strong run by Shefflin, when he got away from McMahon and John Reddan, saw him cross from the left for Carey to finish to the net with a perfectly timed connection.
That was in the third minute and it was followed by a Shefflin free and one from play by Martin Comerford. And, in scoring so early, the captain's young brother set down an important marker against the Clare captain Brian Lohan who never quite came to terms with the threat he posed continually.
In essence, Kilkenny established a psychological advantage in that brief period which was to sustain them though a first half in which Clare's forwards were constantly frustrated by the brilliance of the opposing defence individually and collectively. The Leinster champions were spreading the play wide and dictating the trend of the game.
For Clare manager Cyril there were early warning signs, with John Reddan struggling against Derek Lyng at midfield and Colin Lynch not seeing enough ball to seriously trouble Andy Comerford. And, at both ends, Kilkenny were largely in the ascendancy with Michael Kavanagh superb from the early minutes at right corner-back and Shefflin really troubling Sean McMahon.
It was 1-4 to 0-1 after 13 minutes and it was only after Clare achieved a steady improvement in defence that they began to be more competitive.
Sean McMahon's gradual dominance over Shefflin (who was later shifted to the left wing) was the principal factor, but, in time David Hoey was to do some excellent work at right-half with Gerry Quinn doing surprisingly well considering his lack of hurling practice after his semi-final injury. And, it was McMahon who kept Clare in touch on the scoreboard, expertly hitting three of their four opening scores from placed balls.
The fact that Clare never once managed to go in front was indicative more of the consistently good covering of the Kilkenny backs (with Larkin doing some superb work) than it was of their continuing problems in attack.
The game seemed to be by-passing Jamesie O'Connor, even when he switched wings, Tony Griffin was limited to the occasional break by the brilliance of Peter Barry's covering and Niall Gilligan, too, made little headway against Noel Hickey, who also did marvellous work under pressure.
Over the course of the second quarter, Clare had a little more to be cheerful about. Once Ollie Baker settled after replacing Reddan in the 20th minute, he made an important contribution around midfield and good scores from Lynch and Gilligan, followed by the first of four Jamesie O'Connor frees, saw them perform much more effectively, even if the gap on the scoreboard was never less than four points.
Nevertheless, they were proving much more competitive than they had been over the course of the first 15 minutes. And, but for the fact that Gilligan hit a powerful shot just over the crossbar in the last minute, they would have been closer than the six points which separated them at the break, 1-11 to 0-8.
Clare were again out of luck within four minutes of the resumption when Markham was just off target, following a clearance by Frank Lohan after Andy Comerford made a long run down the centre and lost possession. And, all that Kilkenny managed in a 14-minute period was a single point at a time when Frank Lohan was very effective, Brian Lohan cleared some ball, Brian Quinn was policing Carey well and McMahon was maintaining his grip. Allied to Baker's prompting at midfield, more threatening play from the forwards raised genuine hopes of a recovery when the margin was down to a mere three points (1-12 to 0-12) by the 38th minute.
That was after Tony Carmody promised a goal until he was tackled by 'keeper James McGarry and lost power in a shot which was easily stopped on the line by Larkin. And, Larkin (whose grandfather had been on the winning team against Clare in 1932) did even better to divert a Markham shot outside the post.
The net effect was that the character of the Kilkenny team was being put to the ultimate test with a victory that had seemed probably up to then now being called into question. To their credit (and that of the management and trainer Mick O'Flynn), they responded speedily and in style and none more so that D.J. Carey. After Shefflin's 50th minute point from play (and then another from a free) helped restore confidence, Carey manufactured a classic score almost out of nothing. He won possession out on the right wing, evaded Baker (who lost his footing) and, calmly keeping the ball on his hurley, hit over an angled shot. It was vintage Carey, a memory to treasure.
What happened subsequently was largely inconsequential, especially after Shefflin scored the second goal seven minutes from the end, doing well to beat Davy Fitzgerald after Martin Comerford made the opening by blocking down Brian Lohan. And, the Kilkenny faithful were ready for their celebrations after folk-hero John Power made a cameo appearance in injury time.
*Aodhán MacSuibhne's long wait for a final proved worthwhile with an impressive display of sensible refereeing, to which the positive approach of both teams helped enormously.
Scorers: Kilkenny - H. Shefflin 1-7 (0-4 frees); D.J. Carey 1-6 (0-3 frees); M. Comerford, J. Hoyne, A. Comerford, J. Coogan, D. Lyng, B. McEvoy and C. Carter 0-1 each.
Clare: S. McMahon 0-6 (0-3 seventies, 0-2 frees); J. O'Connor 0-4 frees; C. Lynch, N. Gilligan and G. Considine 0-2 each; T. Griffin, O. Baker and A. Quinn 0-1 each.
KILKENNY: J. McGarry; M. Kavanagh, N.. Hickey, P. Larkin; R. Mullally, P. Barry, J.J. Delaney; A. Comerford (capt.), D. Lyng; J. Hoyne, H. Shefflin, J. Coogan; E. Brennan, M. Comerford, D.J. Carey. Subs: C. Carter for Coogan (54th minute); B. McEvoy for Hoyne (56th); J. Power for Brennan (72nd).
CLARE: D. Fitzgerald; B. Quinn, B. Lohan (capt.), F. Lohan; D. Hoey, S. McMahon, G. Quinn; J. Reddan, C. Lynch; J. O'Connor, T. Griffin, A. Markham; T. Carmody, N. Gilligan, D. Forde. Subs: O. Baker for Reddan (20th minute); G. Considine for Forde (56th); A. Quinn for Markham (61st); C. Plunkett for Baker (injured 68th).