THEIR senior fortunes may be at a low ebb but the underage ranks continue to generate promise for Clare hurling.
After their U21 heroics in 2009, they have prospered at minor level for the past two seasons and collected the county’s second successive Munster MHC crown at Páirc Uí Chaoimh yesterday. It was a historic occasion for Clare completing back-to-back triumphs and their latest was richly deserved.
The scoreboard may have proclaimed a five-point gap but in truth Clare were far superior. By the 48th minute they had stormed ahead by 1-19 to 1-7 and, despite Waterford pouncing for late goals courtesy of Adam O’Sullivan and captain Gavin O’Brien, Clare were never in danger of relinquishing their advantage.
Clare measured up to the expectations surrounding this team. They carried strong form into the match on the back of their semi-final dismissal of Tipperary and shredded Waterford’s notions of success with a powerful first-half display.
"We’re from Clare and we’re not used to good luck stories," reflected joint manager Gerry O’Connor afterwards.
"We’ve been through the hard times, to get one in-a-row is a big achievement and two in-a-row is beyond our wildest dreams. It was a brilliant start by us in the first-half. Our support play and point-scoring was phenomenal. Tony Kelly and Peter Duggan got some incredible scores, and our half-backs were overlapping the whole time."
Clare settled quickly to the task at hand and demonstrated the host of exciting prospects they possess in their lineup. Their defence were in commanding form and provided the bedrock for their challenge, with Seadna Morey, Jarlath Colleran and Jamie Shanahan all to the fore.
The telepathic relationship between midfield duo Colm Galvin and Tony Kelly surfaced again as they controlled their sector, while Cathal O’Connell and Aaron Cunningham showed accuracy in front of goal from the off.
Shane O’Donnell may not have raised a flag during the game but his ball-winning abilities caused problems for the Waterford rearguard and he was frequently fouled for placed balls that O’Connell relentlessly converted.
By the 20th minute, Clare had chalked up a remarkable 12 points and the flawless marksmanship of O’Connell was central to that advantage.
"Cathal is a remarkable young fella," revealed joint manager Donal Moloney.
"His attention to detail is phenomenal. We brought him on in last year’s Munster final and people said he was too small, but he’s a big heart. He’s the playmaker in our team and his freetaking is fantastic."
By the interval Clare were ahead 0-14 to 1-4 and Waterford’s prospects were already ominous. They struggled to get the ball past the defensive barrier that Clare erected in their half-forward line and Waterford’s key attacking duo Jake Dillon and Stephen Bennett were clearly targeted.
The Clare defence nullified those threats excellently and the fact neither registered a score from play was a testament to the proficiency of the Banner rearguard.
Waterford generated some hope when Adam O’Sullivan found the net in the 15th minute after excellent approach work by Bennett but it was a rare moment when they unlocked the Clare defence in the first-half.
Waterford goalkeeper Paddy Cooke was in stellar form as he denied full-forward Oisín Hickey with two outstanding blocks. But Hickey raced through early in the second-half after a superb pass by Shanahan and he made no mistake in rifling his shot to the bottom corner of the net.
That stretched Clare’s lead to 1-15 to 1-4 and they were never going to be pegged back from there. Waterford battled on with O’Sullivan bundling home his second goal and O’Brien rocketing a shot to the net in the 56th minute, yet the gap was too great to bridge and they were destined for the All-Ireland quarter-finals. Clare will head to the All-Ireland semi-final stage with a view to atoning for last year’s final defeat to Kilkenny.
"We were very proud last September of how the lads did," said Moloney. "The dream this year is to go one better. But there are significant obstacles to overcome. Galway have a brilliant team this year, Dublin are Leinster champions and I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Waterford and Kilkenny either. There’s interesting challenges ahead for us."
Scorers for Clare: C O’Connell 0-10 (0-10f), T Kelly 0-3 (0-1 65), O Hickey 1-0, A Cunningham, C Galvin 0-2 each, J Colleran, J Shanahan, P Duggan 0-1 each.
Scorers for Waterford: A O’Sullivan 2-1, J Dillon 0-5 (4fs, 1 65), G O’Brien 1-1, D Breathnach 0-2.
CLARE: E Quilligan; J Browne, N O’Connor, S Morey; J Colleran, J Shanahan, G O’Connell; C Galvin, T Kelly; P Duggan, C O’Connell, E Enright; S O’Donnell, O Hickey, A Cunningham.
Sub: A Mulready for Enright (55).
WATERFORD: P Cooke; J Barron, D Ahern, C Walsh; S O’Neill, D Foley, R Barry; S McNulty, G O’Brien; C Dunford, J Dillon, D Flynn; A O’Sullivan, S Bennett, C Chester.
Subs: D Breathnach for Dunford (ht), C Curran for Chester (39), I Kenny for O’Neill (46), M Harney for Flynn (50).
Referee: J O’Connell (Cork).