I was in Páirc Ui Rinn in March the night Kilkenny came from six points down with five minutes remaining to nail Cork on the line by one point. Kilkenny had some momentum and far more time to reel Clare in from six points down but, while you never say never with that crowd, you never felt a Kilkenny comeback was on in this League semi final.
Clare’s workrate was animal. They always had an out-ball or that third runner coming through to try and lance through Kilkenny’s defensive rear-guard. Their pace and movement can be unmerciful for teams to deal with. And all over the field, Clare just had far more stand-out performers. It didn’t matter what Kilkenny threw at Clare, you always felt they could withstand the onslaught that has crushed so many teams.
The most impressive aspects of Clare’s display was how much it was driven by Clare’s lesser lights Oisin O’Brien, David Fitzgerald, David Reidy – and how many big names they still have to return – David McInerney, Shane O’Donnell, Jack Browne, Peter Duggan. Tony Kelly has still to start a league game this spring.
The depth in the Clare squad is massive now. Mikey Kiely, who works with us in the Limerick minor set-up as a strength and conditioning coach, is also involved with Limerick IT. He was raving to me earlier in the year about Oisín O’Brien, who I hardly even knew. I, and everyone else, certainly know who he is now; O’Brien gave Richie Hogan bags of it yesterday.
Brian Cody will still have slept well last night. It will have given him loads of ammunition to fire at his players over the coming months. Kilkenny were missing massive warriors – Michael and Colin Fennelly, Paul Murphy, Eoin Larkin and Conor Fogarty - but he will also know that he can’t afford to be without those players going forward.
With Richie Power and Ger Aylward gone this year too through retirement and injury, Kilkenny just don’t have the same depth any more. That has been obvious from their performances at U-21 level in recent years. Kilkenny have been able to stave off those concerns in through having so many brilliant players but they can’t expect those great men to keep going forever.
The Kilkenny defence struggled for pace and legs. Their full-back line was in huge difficulty. There was a clear lack of communication between Eoin Murphy and Joey Holden for the first two goals. Other teams will have noted too how much Clare frustrated Hogan and TJ Reid with the efficiency and proficiency of their tackling, and the savage intensity of their workrate.
Kilkenny will still be favourites for the All-Ireland today but Clare have so much to be positive about. Some of their established players have rediscovered their old form. Conor McGrath was superb. Colm Galvin was scintillating and a deserved man-of-the-match. When Galvin is in that mood, there isn’t many better players than him in the country. John Conlon is playing like a man possessed, so strong that a herd of springing buffalos would bounce off him. Despite being a little rusty from three months on the sideline, Tony Kelly still showed flashes of his genius.
Tactically, Davy also got it spot on. It’s not often you see a team’s wing-backs go up to the wing-forward positions to contest their own puck-out but Clare had that licence with Cian Dillon so superb again as the sweeper.
Podge Collins’ work-rate and honesty made a difference too. At one stage, he was back in the left corner-back position. With the athleticism and pace in this team, Clare’s hurling yesterday was a form of ‘Total’ hurling like the style espoused by the Dutch soccer team of the 1970s.
I thought Kilkenny played in to Clare’s hands at times, especially in the first half when allowing Clare to hit so many short puck-outs to Dillon.
As Cyril Farrell would say, ‘It was like throwing nuts to monkeys’.
I’d say the two people most horrified with yesterday’s result are Ger Cunningham and Liam Dunne.
With either Dublin or Wexford meeting Kilkenny in the Leinster championship, a wounded Kilkenny animal is the last beast you want to meet in their next hunt.
Nobody expected a Clare-Waterford league final but it’s going to be weird and fascinating now with the two teams also meeting in the championship five weeks afterwards. Clare haven’t won a league title since 1978 while Waterford have never won successive league titles.
Waterford were brilliant yesterday but we have seen flashes of that class and potential over the last 18 months. For Clare, it’s like the genie is finally back out of the bottle after being locked away.However, nobody in the Clare camp will be getting carried.
*FÓGRA EILE: Would it not be possible to consider tossing a coin for home and away on a league semi final day. The atmosphere in Thurles is just weird with four different sets of fans together.
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