Only time will tell, with Sunday’s final round of games now taking on massive significance, but had Clare capitalised on their second-half dominance they would be sitting pretty on top of the table on their own this morning, a semi-final place all but guaranteed while Kilkenny would be deep in relegation trouble. Now, well, with a mere two points separating top (Waterford) from bottom (Galway) and with those two meeting next week, almost anything is possible.
On the balance of play and possession this is a game Clare should have won. Playing into the cold, stiff wind in the first half, they trailed by just a goal at the break (2-7 to 1-7) and even at that stage they deserved better. The two goals scored by Kilkenny were each top-drawer strikes but each should also have been prevented.
The first came in the eighth minute, soon after Colm Galvin (a late replacement for Paudge Collins) had rattled the rigging for Clare and lifted the spirits of a fine home crowd (est. 5,000). The ball was worked forward to newcomer Ger Aylward, star of last year’s Kilkenny U21 side who was deep in the right corner and seemingly far from the danger zone. But, using his superb pace and footwork, Aylward managed to skip inside his marker and from a very narrow angle blasted home a goal which sucked the wind from Clare sails.
The second Kilkenny goal was even more of a body-blow, both in timing and execution. It came just before the break, the sides tied on 1-7 apiece and Clare looking good for the second half. It started with Tommy Walsh from wing-back, ball worked forward precisely and intelligently between Aylward, Eoin Larkin and finally to flying midfielder Lester Ryan, who had broken forward unmarked, for a blaster of a goal.
The first six minutes of the second half though was when Clare really threw this game away. They began brightly, impressive Kilkenny keeper Eoin Murphy smartly off his line to save from John Conlan. From there however Clare got into self-destruct mode, four bad wides in a row, and that poor shooting would continue for the remainder of the half. They did manage two points, short-range frees by Colin Ryan, to come within a point of Kilkenny in the 47th minute, but followed that up with three more poor wides.
Kilkenny meanwhile weren’t exactly setting the world on fire either, scoreless for the first 15 minutes of the second half, but when their opportunity came they took it, and how. It began with Richie Power losing possession, then regaining it before parting to the unmarked Eoin Larkin. With several defenders closing in, Larkin cooly picked out Aidan Fogarty whose goal left Kilkenny lead 3-7 to 1-9 despite having been mostly on the back foot in that third quarter.
Clare continued to press, centre-forward Tony Kelly finally got on the board and sub Darach Honan got a beauty from the wing, Colin Ryan notched a few more from placed balls, but they also continued to struggle to find the target. Kilkenny, on the other hand, were far more economical, far more precise. Seven shots on goal was all they managed in the entire second half but they scored 1-3, the experience of Larkin/Fogarty/Richie Hogan (outstanding all-round display) all telling.
A lesson for Clare from the champions, a costly lesson perhaps, but one from which this young side can learn, says selector Mike Deegan. “It showed the experience Kilkenny had that we didn’t have — they laid the ball off, they had goal chances and took them; we had goal opportunities and didn’t take them. We’ll learn a lot from this. We were competitive, but being competitive isn’t enough, moral victories aren’t good enough – we need to be winning these matches. We can take a bit out of it, but we’ll have to learn and we’ll have to learn fast.”
Scorers for Kilkenny: A Fogarty 1-2; E Larkin 0-5 (4f, 0-1 65); G Aylward 1-1; L Ryan 1-1; R Hogan 0-1.
Scorers for Clare: Colin Ryan 0-11 (10f); C Galvin 1-0; T Kelly, J Conlan, S O’Donnell, D Honan, 0-1 each.
KILKENNY: E Murphy; P Hogan, K Joyce, C Fogarty; T Walsh, B Hogan, P Walsh; M Fennelly, L Ryan; M Rice, R Power, E Larkin; G Aylward, R Hogan, A Fogarty.
Subs: C Fennelly (Rice 43); W Walsh (Power 52); M Ruth (Aylward 60).
CLARE: P Kelly; D O’Donovan, D McInerney, S Morey; B Bugler, P Donnellan (c), P O’Connor; N O’Connell, Conor Ryan; F Lynch, T Kelly, Colin Ryan; J Condon, S O’Donnell, C Galvin.
Subs: E Barrett (McInerney 49); D Honan (Lynch 63). Blood: P Collins (Kelly 56/61).
Referee: A Stapleton (Laois).