Clare remain the standard-bearers in this grade and on September 13, they have the chance to claim a third successive title. But despite the positive pre-match noises emanating from the Antrim camp, they’re still light years away from challenging for the Cross of Cashel trophy.
Some 22 points separated Clare and Antrim in last year’s U21 decider but this hopeless mismatch almost a year later saw Clare win by five more.
The story of the game can be summed up quickly. Clare opened up a 1-7 to 0-0 lead before Antrim opened their account with Seán McAfee’s 18th-minute goal.
Aaron Cunningham struck his second goal to help Clare lead by 2-16 to 1-1 at half-time before 2013 Hurler of the Year Tony Kelly and Cunningham added second-half goals.
Cunningham finished with 3-3, Kelly added 1-3 and Cathal ‘Tots’ O’Connell marked his welcome return from injury with six points, including five frees.
Antrim offered token resistance but Stephen McAfee and Ciaran Clarke were the pick of the bunch. Afterwards, Antrim manager Kevin Ryan insisted things would get better, while admitting that he didn’t think this defeat would be as bad.
In the saffron and blue corner, joint manager Gerry O’Connor hailed his side’s striking and score-getting but lamented some aspects of defending and distribution of the ball.
O’Connor also admitted: “It’s not ideal preparation heading into an All-Ireland final.
“We were expecting a tougher test, based on what we had been hearing during the course of the last two months. Ultimately, once the first goal went in, and when we went four or five points up and the sweeper system wasn’t working for them, that was really game over after about 10 or 15 minutes.”
O’Connor added: “We’d be very disappointed with some of our defending throughout the game.
“The first goal would have been unacceptable defending in relation to how the ball was allowed to get there and how nobody got back to help Jack [Browne].
“Anybody can be exposed once from a ball like that but ultimately your defence needs to work as a unit. And there were certainly lots of occasions when our defence did not work well.”
Ryan, meanwhile, believed that Antrim could get to within 10or 12 points of Clare, which would have represented a marked improvement on last year.
But he conceded that Clare’s greater physicality and a “lifestyle of fitness” were simply too much to cope with.
Waterford native Ryan has vowed that Antrim will improve, however, as he hinted at major changes within the county.
He said: “We know what we have to do. We have plans to change all that and it’s not dream stuff in the future. It’s things that we have happening in the next month or two. We’re going to take that opportunity over a year or two to seriously close that gap. That’s our ambition.”
Clare were simply allowed to run riot and O’Connor nodded: “We were really dominant.
“We were winning an awful lot of ball in the middle of the field. They had only really one puckout option, number 14 [Seán McAfee], the full-forward, and we anticipated that after five or 10 minutes. The key thing is that there’s an awful lot for us to work on.”
Members of Clare’s star-studded outfit will now return to their clubs for crucial knockout fixtures ahead of the final, where the expectation is that history will be made by claiming three in a row.
Scorers for Antrim: Seán McAfee (1-0), C Clarke (1f), Stephen McAfee (0-3 each), M Bradley, D McKernan, C Burke, S McCaughan (0-1 each).
Scorers for Clare: A Cunningham (3-3), T Kelly (1-3), C O’Connell (0-6, 5fs), B Duggan (0-5, 3fs), D Reidy (0-3), C Galvin, S O’Donnell (0-2 each), J Shanahan, E Enright, N Deasy, S Gleeson (0-1 each).
ANTRIM: C Butler; M Dudley, P Burke, M Bradley; R McCambridge, J McGreevy, T Ó Ciaráin; E Campbell, N McKenna; D McCloskey, Stephen McAfee, D McGuinness; D McKernan, Seán McAfee, C Clarke.
Subs: C Burke for McGuinness (30), S McCaughan for McCloskey (ht), J O’Connell for McKenna (38), M Connolly for McCambridge (44), E McGaughan for Seán McAfee (51).
CLARE: K Hogan, J Colleran, J Browne, S Morey; G O’Connell, A O’Neill, J Shanahan; C Galvin, E Enright; B Duggan, T Kelly, P Duggan; S O’Donnell, A Cunningham, D Reidy.
Subs: C O’Connell for Reidy (30+1), N Deasy for B Duggan (ht), S O’Brien for Morey (46), S Gleeson for Galvin (46), A McGuane for Shanahan (51).
Referee: B Redmond (Wexford).