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Dynamic duo drive Clare to glory

Clare 2-17 Kilkenny 2-11
A majestic second-half display in which they outscored Kilkenny 1-10 to 0-4 saw Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor’s Clare crowned Bord Gáis Energy All-Ireland U-21 hurling champions for the second time in four years in a floodlit Semple Stadium on Saturday evening.

But this win, if anything, was even more impressive than that breakthrough success of 2009.

Right from the start the Banner youngsters signalled both their class and their intent, racing 1-5 to 0-2 ahead after eight minutes of top-class action with five different scorers.

A point apiece by corner-forwards Cathal McInerney and Cathal O’Connell and another from raiding wing-back Seadna Morey had Clare surging ahead before the game’s opening goal arrived, with full-forward and captain Conor McGrath setting up O’Connell. Further points from midfielder Colm Galvin and the other wing-back, Patrick O’Connor, helped open a six-point margin.

But just when it looked as though Clare might run away with the game Kilkenny dug in. With senior panellist Richie Doyle doing very well at centre-back and Ollie Walsh very impressive around the middle of the park, the tide began to turn.

Three points from captain Kevin Kelly, a Walter Walsh double and one from Pádraig Walsh had them back in the game by the 27th minute, (1-7 to 0-7). Then they took control.

The first of two goals was a rifled penalty from John Power after he himself had been fouled, then Ger Aylward raced on to a breaking ball and gave Ronan Taaffe no chance from close range. At 2-7 to 1-7, Clare had gone from a position of control to fighting for survival.

For outstanding corner-back Paul Flanagan there were shades of the All-Ireland MHC final of 2010 when, early in the second half, Clare had taken a commanding lead (0-11 to 0-4), only to succumb to sucker-punches, goals which eventually cost them that title.

He recalled: "Back then, when Ger Aylward caught the ball and hand-passed the ball to Michael Brennan and he stuck it in the net for their first goal, it was the start of a disastrous day."

Would history repeat itself? Not likely. The Clare management team, led by Moloney and O’Connor, took advantage of the respite and Clare came back out with the same team but a very different game plan.

"We made a few changes and we had to," said Moloney. "Kilkenny had started to dominate coming up to half time and we had to change things completely and go to a running game. And it worked, the running game suits them. We tried it in the first half but Kilkenny had crowded the midfield. In the second half we were able to pull back our half-back line, pull back our midfield and release the half-forwards, release the likes of Cathal O’Connell, Paudge Collins, Tony Kelly and those guys. When the field opens up, they just love it."

! Playing a style with which they are all comfortable and which suits their searing pace and superb fitness levels, Clare were now a team transformed. Kilkenny didn’t score for 10 minutes, by which time the Munster men had four points on the board, three of those by the sublime Cathal O’Connell.

Game tied, 1-11 to 2-8, 40th minute — for the rest of the game it was practically all Clare, though Kilkenny had been weakened by the loss of Ollie Walsh, victim of a fierce, reckless pull by Shane Golden just before half time. Had Walsh not courageously got up and attempted to play on, it would surely have resulted in a red card for Golden.

The second Clare goal came in the 44th minute and a it was a beauty.

Having just been denied what looked a clear penalty, the inside forwards kept working, O’Connell reclaimed what looked a lost cause, the ball was worked to McGrath, who emphatically took the goal.

Kilkenny continued to battle, Patrick O’Connor made a vital red-zone intercept to save a certain goal, but Clare were now supreme, the defence especially, flamboyant with Flanagan catching the eye.

"At half time we knew we were struggling, their lads inside were doing a bit of damage," Flanagan admitted. "I think it helped going in at half time a goal behind, we knew we really had to lift our game. If we could play again for the second half like we played in the first 10 minutes we knew we had a great chance."

A triumph for Clare then. "There’s a remarkable courage in these guys and an incredible level of fitness," said Moloney, before going on to pay tribute to his management team. "Gerry [O’Connor] is my best friend and tonight, at the final whistle, I didn’t want to let go of him! He asked me to come in at U16 and the two of us have soldiered together. We’ve had dark days but then about three years ago we found Paul Kinnerk and Jimmy Browne. Those two gentlemen added so much to the set-up, they’ve been just outstanding. We’re really glad to have such an excellent team of people to work with."

An excellent team of players also, and Moloney has bad news for all-comers for next year. He said: "10 of that team are underage again and of the 35-man panel, 26 are underage."

Scorers for Clare: C O’Connell 1-6 (4f); C McGrath 1-1; C McInerney 0-4; S Morey, P O’Connor, C Galvin, S Golden, A Cunningham, T Kelly (f), 0-1 each.

Scorers for Kilkenny: K Kelly 0-6 (4f); G Aylward 1-1; J Power 1-0; W Walsh 0-2; P Walsh, G Brennan, 0-1 each.

Subs for Clare: P Duggan (Cunningham 49); N Arthur (Collins 59).

Subs for Kilkenny: M Gaffney (O Walsh inj, 37); C Kenny (P Walsh 55).

Referee: D Kirwan (Cork).