Kilkenny pushed to the limit

IT was not as facile as their runaway last four win over Galway, but after a white knuckle ride at Croke Park yesterday Kilkenny were crowned All-Ireland minor hurling champions.

Richie Mulrooney’s charges were made to work hard before securing yesterday’s title as they atoned for last season’s final defeat. The manner in which they crushed Galway at the semi-final stage last month left them unbackable favourites, but Clare produced a wonderful performance that tested the Cats to the limit.

The Banner youngsters tore into the tie from the start and showed scant regard for their opponent’s reputations.

Clare settled quickly and bossed the first-half exchanges. When an excellent point by wing-back Enda Boyce had them six clear by the half hour mark it looked like a shock was on the cards.. But their opponents refused to panic. They remained calm and composed, engineering a route back into contention and seizing the openings that fell their way.

A quickfire burst of two points before the break, courtesy of John Power from a placed ball and Michael Brennan from play, cut the gap to four points (0-9 to 0-5) at the interval.

Then came two goals which shaped the outcome of this clash. The first arrived in the 35th minute when Ger Aylward scooped up possession and off-loaded to corner-forward Michael Brennan in space. The latter’s finish was clinical as he shot low across Clare goalkeeper Ronan Taaffe into the bottom corner of the net.

Seven minutes later and Kilkenny had another green flag with Brennan once more at the heart of the move. Again it was Aylward who broke the ball into space for Brennan to race onto and with the Clare defence in close pursuit, Brennan intelligently opted to kick rather than strike past Taaffe. The ball was destined for the net but its flight was interrupted by Kilkenny substitute Paul Buggy, who got the finishing touch before it crossed the line.

It mean that the sides were level (2-5 to 0-11) and the momentum was with the Leinster men. A lengthy stoppage ensued after that second goal following a serious leg injury to Clare corner-back Haulie Vaughan, but when play resumed it was obvious Kilkenny had an extra pep in their step. They finally began to tap into the hot streak of form that had swept them to GAA headquarters with midfielder Kevin Kelly scything through for two points and Aylward lashing over another.

Clare’s resilience surfaced again in the finale. David O’Halloran buzzed around the attack to claim two points, with John Power firing one in between for Kilkenny. When substitute Aaron Cunningham knocked over a point under pressure in the 58th minute, the margin between them was wafer thin (2-9 to 0-14).

Clare missed some chances in those final minutes but credit also the Kilkenny defensive effort with Jason Corcoran, Willie Phelan and Owen McGrath in sterling form. The coup de grace was applied to the Cats victory when Brennan popped over a 64th minute point after a searing run forward by Aylward had initiated the opening.

That score copperfastened Kilkenny’s success, but the fact they did not depart with victory should not diminish the excellence of Clare’s performance. They played with hunger and determination, particularly in the first-half as they obliterated Kilkenny in the aerial battles and gobbled up multiple breaks around the middle third. Some of the game’s best performers wore saffron and blue jerseys. Paul Flanagan and Seadna Morey were immense in the full-back line, Clare destroyed Kilkenny at midfield courtesy of Colm Galvin and the excellent Tony Kelly, while Paudge Collins and Jamie Shanahan were shone in the half-forward line.

A Collins point in the 9th minute tied the game at 0-2 apiece and for the rest of the half Clare took over with O’Halloran, Daire Keane, Kelly and Boyce all landing superb points. Clare even overcame the concession of a contentious penalty in the 24th minute. The foul on Kevin Kelly was soft but despite it clearly taking place outside the large parallelogram, referee Anthony Stapleton awarded a penalty. Power was denied a goal though by a combination of Ronan Taaffe and Paul Flanagan. After that Clare were in buoyant mood but Kilkenny’s savvy, maturity and opportunism in front of goal just wore them down in the second-half.

Scorers for Kilkenny: M Brennan 1-2; P Buggy 1-0; O McGrath (two frees), K Kelly, J Power (one free) 0-2 each; G Aylward, C Buckley 0-1 each.

Scorers for Clare: D O’Halloran 0-5 (three frees); T Kelly, P Collins, N Arthur (two frees) 0-2 each; D Keane, E Boyce, A Cunningham 0-1 each.

Subs for Kilkenny: P Buggy for O’Hanrahan (37), P Holden for Walsh (39), R Reid for Holden (56).

Subs for Clare: A Cunningham for Malone (41), A Mulready for Vaughan (inj) (46), D McInerney for Arthur (58).

Referee: Anthony Stapleton (Laois)